Trump’s Mexico Deal Gets Tentative Support From Key Labor Leader

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump won support for his proposed trade accord with Mexico from an unexpected corner Wednesday: the head of the U.S. labor movement.

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO and a long-time opponent of the North American Free Trade Agreement, had kind words for the replacement that Trump announced this week with Mexico, which included higher wages for some Mexican auto workers to discourage U.S. car companies from relocating there.

“When their wages rise, all of us begin to win,” Trumka said during an interview on National Public Radio. “The current version of Nafta has harmed small farmers, ranchers, businesses and working people all across North America, and the only clear winners so far have been global corporations. This is trying to reverse that.”

The U.S. and Mexico announced a bilateral deal Monday after weeks of talks with just the two nations. Under the proposed agreement, cars will be required to have 75 percent of their content originate in the U.S. and Mexico, up from 62.5 percent under Nafta. Under the new deal with Mexico, 40 percent to 45 percent of auto content would have to be made by workers making more than $16 per hour, a condition that favors the U.S. and Canada.

The U.S. is pressuring Canada to strike a deal by week’s end, which is when the Trump administration plans to inform Congress that he intends to sign a new trade pact with Mexico in 90 days that would replace Nafta.

Trumka’s remarks on Wednesday appeared more supportive than a joint statement put out Monday by him and the heads of the United Steelworkers, United Auto Workers, International Association of Machinists and the Communications Workers of America.

“We are aggressively engaged in pursuing an agreement that works for working people in all three countries, and we are not done yet,” according to the statement. “We remain committed to working with the administration to get Nafta right. Our members’ jobs depend on it.”

Trumka’s comments highlight the quandary that Trump has created for U.S. union leaders. Trump’s appeal to working-class voters could make it harder for labor to wholeheartedly support Democratic candidates in this fall’s midterms.

“When he does something that’s good for workers, we’ll say so,” Trumka said. “When he does something that hurts workers, we’ll say so. And we’ll call honest balls and strikes. Support him when we can, support the issues when we can. This has been an important issue for working people and for America.”

Policy Opposition

Celeste Drake, trade and globalization policy specialist for the AFL-CIO, said that while some union members support Trump’s approach to trade, they oppose his policies on taxes, employee safety rules and other issues.

“He is doing things that are completely antithetical to other labor union interests,” Drake said in an interview.

Drake also suggested the benefits of Trump’s trade deal have been overstated.

“It’s easy to sell, ‘I just negotiated the best trade agreement in the world,”’ she said. But that agreement “is not enough to solve everything that’s wrong with our economy.”

Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, project director at the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California-Los Angeles, said that Trump’s nationalist and protectionist positions play well to some parts of organized labor, such as coal miners and steelworkers. He said the trade deal raised the possibility that national union leaders could endorse Republican candidates, including Trump.

“I think that’s exactly the key political question," Rivera-Salgado said. “That vote is up for a fight.”

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