The Trump administration has found a pair of powerful allies in its push for a major overhaul of the NAFTA trade agreement — two of North America’s biggest private-sector labour unions.
After the closure of auto plants and the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs in that sector alone, “a tweak and a little twist here and there is not gonna fix it,” Unifor president Jerry Dias told the Star about NAFTA. “The numbers speak for themselves — there has to be a wholesale overhaul.”
After 23 years of the tri-national trade agreement, Dias said Mexico has six per cent of the auto market but 45 per cent of the auto jobs. Over the past decade, Canada has lost four vehicle assembly plants and the U.S. has lost 10 facilities, while Mexico has gained eight, and the trend continues. Mexican vehicle production has shot up from two million units in 2008 to 3.6 million today, with a 2018 projection of five million units, according to a joint Unifor/UAW statement issued this week.
Unifor and the United Auto Workers announced Tuesday they were joining forces to push for “major improvements” to NAFTA’s auto provisions. Dias met that day in Washington with U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and Wednesday with Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland to talk NAFTA, softwood lumber and steel trade issues.
Ross “absolutely agrees with us,” said Dias, who previously sat down with U.S. President Donald Trump’s key official on trade just two months ago. Freeland, he added, also “understands there are some major, major problems with NAFTA.”
No sooner had Trump — who calls NAFTA “the worst trade deal in the history of the world” — been sworn into office in January than Canadian officials sought assurances that the new Republican administration did not want major changes to NAFTA that might be harmful to Canada.
“Little tweaks, or a do-nothing approach, won’t cut it,” UAW president Dennis Williams said in Tuesday’s joint statement. The UAW, one of the largest and most diverse unions in North America with 420,000 members, threw its support behind Democrat Hillary Clinton in last year’s U.S. election.
Mexico is the problem, said both union leaders, but they don’t blame Mexican workers.
“Mexican workers have been shafted, as well as Canadian and American workers,” said Dias. The average auto worker in Mexico only makes $3.95 an hour, there are “essentially no independent unions,” and successive Mexican governments “have failed to protect and advance workers’ fundamental rights,” he said.
NAFTA is the one thing Dias agrees on with Trump. Dias, whose union representing 310,000 workers is Canada’s largest in the private sector, said he’s “not there sipping tea with Wilbur,” but rather negotiating for the interests of Canada and the quarter-million auto workers represented by Unifor and the UAW. One of Unifor’s predecessor unions, the Canadian Auto Workers, split acrimoniously from the UAW in 1984.