Tim Burga, President
Ohio AFL-CIO
Tim Burga, Ohio AFL-CIO President

Tim Burga, Ohio AFL-CIO President

Labor Day is a day well worth celebrating.  Created by the trade union movement in the late 19th century, Labor Day became a federal holiday in 1894.  As we have done through many generations, we pay tribute on this day to the achievements of American working people and the contributions we have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country. 

 
Therefore, amidst all the parades, barbeques and family get-togethers, we must take stock of how our country moves forward in that tribute.  How do we both recognize the essential role that working people play in our economy and how do we best ensure that we share in the wealth we help create?  Citizens and policymakers alike should be focused on these fundamental questions as we seek to improve the lives of working people. 
 
There are few issues more central to these questions than international trade policy.  Simply put, our trade policies have not worked for working people for decades.  Millions of American jobs have been lost and sent overseas under current trade deals.  It is clear that we must better prioritize the American worker in our trade policies and the commencement of renegotiations on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is a prime opportunity to do so. 
 
The bottom line on NAFTA is that it has hurt the bottom line for working people.  It has failed workers in Canada, Mexico and the United States. While overall trade volume and corporate profits are up, wages in all three countries have remained stagnant.  Worker productivity has increased, but workers are not receiving a fair return on their work. 
 
Our opposition to NAFTA is not about isolationism or opposition to “trade” per se. Rather, we oppose a set of rigged rules made by and for global corporations that enrich themselves at the expense of working people. Trade should be a cooperative endeavor that benefits us all.
 
NAFTA’s race-to-the-bottom rules can’t be fixed with mere tweaks or by importing rules from the failed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). We must replace NAFTA’s vicious cycle with a virtuous one. To achieve this, there are fundamental principles that need to be followed if we are to craft trade policy that lifts the bottom line for American working people.
 
First, we must democratize the renegotiation process.  The TPP negotiations demonstrated that secrecy breeds contempt.  NAFTA renegotiation must be transparent, democratic and participatory, with more access for Congress and the public to proposals and negotiations. This is to include opportunities for public comment, periodic congressional hearings to review progress and more inclusive trade advisory committees.
 
Next, we need to add strong and enforceable labor rules and eliminate corporate courts that adjudicate disputes.  To help raise wages and improve working conditions, NAFTA must ensure all workers can exercise fundamental labor rights reflected in international labor conventions.  The new NAFTA must omit the investor-to-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanism, which undermines the rule of law and facilitates offshoring by creating unique privileges and private “courts” in which foreign investors can challenge laws they claim will cut profits.
 
Changes to NAFTA need to include the addition of enforceable currency rules to eliminate currency manipulation.  Having all trading partners play by the same currency rules, realignment would create 2.3 million to 5.8 million jobs in the U.S. over the next three years, according to the Economic Policy Institute.  Left unaddressed, currency-manipulating countries will continue to syphon off American jobs and our import-export deficit will continue to soar beyond control.
  
We need stronger rules of origin and “buy American” policies to maximize benefits for working people.  This includes increasing regional value requirements and enforcing standards for autos and steel, two highly important industries in Ohio. 
 
NAFTA renegotiations need to address how any future agreement will further protect workers, consumers and the environment.  We need to level the playing field so our commitments to these protections are not undermined and rendered ineffective by the practices of our trading partners.
 
We must demand that any new agreement adheres to these principles if we are to have a new NAFTA worth ratifying that sets the standard for future trade agreements.  So I urge everyone who intends to honor American working people this Labor Day to take stock of what’s at stake in these negotiations and contact their elected representatives to demand a trade policy worth celebrating. 
 
Happy Labor Day to all.