Editor’s Note: Richard Trumka is president of the 12.5 million member, 55-union AFL-CIO, America’s labor federation. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinion at CNN.
After a quarter century of suffering under the failed North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and 18 months of hard-fought negotiations, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) is now proud to endorse a better deal for working people: the United States Mexico Canada Agreement (USCMA), which passed with bipartisan support in the House of Representatives on Thursday, while the Senate is expected to hold a vote on the bill in the new year.
NAFTA was written for those at the top. It enriched corporations at the expense of working families across North America, and the US is estimated to have lost as many as 800,000 jobs to Mexico between 1997 and 2013 as a result. Mexican workers toiled under poverty wages and repressive conditions, which American and Canadian corporations used to slash pay and reduce benefits for workers across the continent. This can never happen again.
When the labor movement had the chance to help renegotiate a new trade deal, we jumped at the opportunity to make a bad deal better. Working with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal and their allies on the USMCA working group, along with Sens. Sherrod Brown and Ron Wyden, we demanded a radically different approach after years of outsourcing and growing income inequality. We came to the table believing, as always, that our trade pacts should raise wages and protect labor rights—not make us poorer and more vulnerable.
We set out to win a better deal for working people, and we refused to settle for anything less.
We set the bar high because we believe trade done right can and should help the lives of working people everywhere. Through extended talks with Congress, the White House and the Mexican and Canadian governments, we continually fought for our goal. We were prepared to walk away if those standards weren’t met. From the beginning, the labor movement made clear that putting working people first was the most important test of any deal.
Without a means to enforce labor rights, the original, toothless NAFTA wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on. And earlier versions of the USMCA did nothing to fix this. Because of our patience and perseverance, the USMCA now includes strong labor rights and a viable mechanism to enforce them. We also secured a separate enforcement mechanism that allows for inspections of factories and facilities that don’t live up to their obligations. This was an important priority for the labor movement because it ensures that working people in all three countries have greater protections under this new agreement.
Another important provision for us was eliminating the special privileges for corporations. Earlier versions of the USMCA would have handed Big Pharma a guaranteed, continent-wide monopoly over life-saving medicines, locking in exorbitant prices for a decade. This deal ensures that corporations aren’t getting special treatment over working people, especially when it comes to our health and safety.
Footnotes and language designed to make it harder to prosecute labor violations were removed, and panels to hear labor disputes can no longer be arbitrarily blocked. This means a more level playing field for working people across the continent. All sectors of work are included in the new deal, and additional steps were taken to ensure North American products, such as steel and automobiles, were prioritized.
The USMCA isn’t perfect – no deal ever is. But it’s a far cry from the original NAFTA, and that is a huge win for working people in North America. While it won’t bring back every job lost under NAFTA, it will help stop the bleeding and add important new protections for workers across the continent.
We’re hopeful the USMCA can serve as a starting point for future trade negotiations. Working people, through our voices and votes, are changing the debate on trade. We have marched and organized for decades to build fairer workplaces and a more just society. That’s how we fought against the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It’s how we brought NAFTA back to the negotiating table. And it’s how we successfully negotiated a USMCA we can now support with pride.
In the weeks and months to come, we can set our sights even higher. Working people are driving a historic moment in America. Strikes are raising wages and standards. Political candidates are looking to the labor movement for solutions on everything from labor law reform to health care to retirement security to the future of work. Now, we’ve done something the corporate trade elites told us was simply impossible—we made NAFTA better.
Fixing NAFTA’s flaws has been a long time coming, but passing the USMCA does not mean Congress is finished empowering working people. We went to the mat on this fight, and we’re ready to do it again. Today, we mark the end of NAFTA and the beginning of our journey back to an America that works for working people.