At the Nation- A Union Vote in Mexico Promises a New Direction in Trade Policy
Two weeks ago, workers at a GM auto plant in northern Mexico voted for a new independent union, promising not just improved rights at that factory but promising a new era of labor collaboration across borders and a new model of trade deals moving forward- as I detail in a new piece for THE NATION.
The vote only happened because of the revised NAFTA agreement approved in 2019:
[Union] activists sought in April 2021 to oust the moribund Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), which has negotiated low-wage deals with employers for decades, and accused the CTM of irregularities in the voting. Invoking for the first time provisions in the new trade deal, known as the USMCA, the SINTTIA activists encouraged the US trade representative to investigate. The result was a new vote in September, overseen by Mexico’s Labor Ministry and the International Labor Organization, which did oust the CTM, leading to the vote last week in which SINTTIA was chosen as the replacement union by the 6,000 Silao GM workers. The Biden administration has followed its actions in Silao with additional interventions supporting labor rights in other plants across Mexico.
That agreement included a number of labor concessions demanded by the AFL-CIO that improved labor rights in Mexico. Critically, lobbying for the deal involved “close collaboration between labor leaders in both the United States and Mexico.” Here is a 2019 tweet by Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, the head of Mexico’s mine and steelworkers union—and a senator in the Mexican Congress elected in 2018 as an ally of the left-leaning President Andrés Manuel López Obrador—would describe the AFL-CIO’s Richard Trumka as a “fighting partner” in pushing through the labor provisions:
I detail how actions at the GM plant built on other key Biden moves on trade, including hiring Thea Lee, previously head of the Economic Policy Institute and a top staffer at the AFL-CIO, to oversee the Bureau of International Labor Affairs at Department of Labor, which includes responsibilities for enforcing labor rights under trade deals.
This strategy of raising wages in Mexico in collaboration of labor leaders in the US is a key alternative to both the racist Trump trade war strategy - based on the idea of a zero-sum game taking jobs from third world nations - and an alternative to the empty corporate trade deals of recent decades that delivered little to workers in the US, particularly in industrialized sectors. In many ways, it is an attempt to revive the anti-WTO global coalition from two decades ago:
The labor provisions in the new NAFTA/USMCA deal, as well as Biden executive actions supporting them, are a framework for a quite different political appeal to US workers, one built on raising worker incomes by extracting the profits of the super-wealthy by means of alliances across borders. A bit over two decades ago, the “Teamsters and turtles” protests in Seattle against the WTO sought to build such a global alliance around a vision of global justice, only to see 9/11 largely derail the movement in the nationalist war fervor stoked in its wake. The cross-border lobbying for the USMCA labor provisions may be a step toward reviving that alternative trade approach.
This goal of raising wages globally is a complement to Biden’s global tax deal with 130 countries to establish a minimum corporate tax, one of the first global deals in history aimed squarely at helping countries collectively extract the profits of multinational corporations to benefit average working families.
Enforcing the new labor provisions in the revised NAFTA deal is only a first step to such a broader-based global trade regime but it is a step in that direction worth celebrating.
The piece built on a few other pieces on the need for a progressive response to the racist Trump approach to trade.
Trump's Trade Policy Is Not Racially Neutral "Economic Populism" - this 2017 piece was a criticism of lazy media coverage often equating Trump’s trade policy with demands by progressive opponents of neoliberal trade policies. It argued that where Trump “is de facto calling for a return to the colonial era of individual negotiations with countries like China or Japan, or inevitably whatever non-white nation he rails against, where the U.S. can use its military and economic power…to extract a better deal from each individual nation to benefit” American workers. This is quite different from the progressive critique of modern trade which argues for raising wage and environmental standards globally to shift income from the global elite to workers globally.
Neoliberalism of Fear Explains Biden’s Strength (as well as Bloomberg’s)- this piece argued that a lot of “conservative” voting patterns are less about ideology than fear by voters that if they don’t give into business demands for lower taxes and regulation, jobs will go overseas. I cited Naomi Klein’si The Shock Doctrine which detailed why even leftwing leaders in South Africa bought into such neoliberal policies out of that fear. The progressive cross-border collaboration to raise wages built into the revised NAFTA deal is therefore the best response to that neoliberal fear and a route as well to give voters more confidence voting for progressive, anti-corporate policies here at home.
Education Polarization in Elections: People are Voting Their Class Interests- This substack piece highlighted data showing how much Trump support aligns with the degree to which voters are vulnerable to trade losses. Instead of looking at class just within the US labor force, we need to understand how the relationship of workers to the global workforce “have shaped the material basis of nationalism in our own politics” and helps explain much of Trump’s political success.
When the revised NAFTA trade deal was being voted on, there was a significant division on how to respond among progressives. Some like Bernie Sanders argued the deal wasn’t good enough and rejected it, while Elizabeth Warren and others sided with the AFL-CIO leaders and House Dem leaders in arguing it was a step in the right direction. As Warren argued:
"Workers have had the legs taken out from underneath them and this agreement makes improvements…It's gonna help open up some markets for farmers, they need that stability. It's gonna help with enforceable labor standards and that's gonna be useful. We really need trade negotiations going forward that make sure anyone who wants access to our markets is actually helping us in the fight against climate change and helping build an economy that works for everybody in the US."
The success of workers at the Silao General Motors plant and others under the revised deal I think makes Warren’s argument for supporting an incremental step forward look like the right approach. We obviously need much more in future trade deals, but the vote in Mexico does help encourage a new roadmap for trade moving forward.