Canada courts labor leaders with U.S. resisting NAFTA proposals

Thursday , December 07, 2017 - 10:40 AM

Josh Wingrove

(c) 2017, Bloomberg.

The Canadian government is meeting with some of the country’s biggest labor groups to discuss NAFTA as talks on the deal are set to resume.

Labor Minister Patricia Hajdu will meet union leaders Friday in a round-table discussion near Toronto to get input on the North American Free Trade Agreement. It’s the latest sign that labor has the Trudeau government’s ear in talks that could hinge, in part, on Canada’s push to raise working standards in both the U.S. and Mexico.

“That’s an indication of how much we value our labor movement, and we want to make sure as we go into negotiations that the rights of Canadian workers are protected,” Hajdu said in an interview with Bloomberg. “We’ll do everything in our power to make sure of that.”

NAFTA talks resume Monday with a partial round in Washington, without political leaders at the table. Canada wants the U.S. to undo so-called “right to work” provisions in some states, while also calling on Mexico to raise labor standards. One of Canada’s top union leaders, Jerry Dias, has met often with the Canadian negotiating team and regularly predicts NAFTA talks will fail.

Trudeau has been pushing to add “progressive” elements like labor, gender and the environment into all trade negotiations -- a move derided by political opponents as “virtue signaling” that could make it tougher to get a deal. That strategy was a driving factor in the surprise false start this week of trade talks with China, a country that typically shuns the bells and whistles Canada wants in any trade deal.

Those added elements are among NAFTA’s sticking points. Canada wants its two North American partners to ratify eight core conventions, including the right to organize, laid out by the International Labour Organization to make Nafta work. “We did put forward a very ambitious proposal on labor,” chief negotiator Steve Verheul told lawmakers this week. While Canada has adopted all eight and Mexico has nearly done so, the U.S. has adopted only two, Verheul said. “The U.S. is resisting that proposal.”

Canada’s call to claw back U.S. “right-to-work” laws, which ban unions from requiring workers to pay dues, is another obstacle. “The U.S. is also resisting that,” Verheul said.

Hajdu’s motivation in pushing higher labor standards echoes U.S. President Donald Trump’s reasoning for overhauling Nafta in the first place: manufacturing job losses. She cited the 1,400 workers at the Bombardier Inc. plant in her hometown of Thunder Bay, Ontario, and said Canada won’t back a trade deal that sees those kinds of jobs move out of the country.

“The reason, by the way, that we’re fighting for these core values is a purely pragmatic one, and that is the prosperity of Canadians,” Hajdu said. “If we do not get a good deal on labor in all of the negotiations, then what happens is Canadian workers suffer.”

The next full round of NAFTA talks will be held in Montreal in January, and talks have been extended through March. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said this week he remains confident that U.S. supporters of NAFTA will apply enough pressure to keep talks from falling apart.

“I think turning back the clock on really important measures that have benefited the U.S., Canada and Mexico would harm our citizens,” he said Thursday during a panel discussion at the Fortune Global Forum in Guangzhou, China. “And I have to ultimately believe that’s not going to happen.”

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