DAVID GREENE, HOST:
President Trump and labor union leaders have something in common. They both hate the North American Free Trade Agreement. On Monday, Trump announced the U.S. was entering into a new deal with Mexico, and Canadian negotiators are in Washington, D.C., today trying to join that deal. Trump has blamed NAFTA for America’s economic woes, and he said change is needed.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This is something that’s very special for our manufacturers and for our farmers from both countries – for all of the people that work, for jobs. It’s also great trade, and it makes it a much more fair bill.
GREENE: As I mentioned, unions have also had major issues with NAFTA. Richard Trumka, the head of the AFL-CIO, has blamed it for factory closures and for sending American jobs to Mexico. And before I turn to him, I do just want to note that many NPR employees are members of SAG-AFTRA, which is an AFL-CIO union. We are joined now by Richard Trumka, the head of the AFL-CIO.
Mr. Trumka, good morning.
RICHARD TRUMKA: Good morning, David.
GREENE: You like where this deal is headed so far?
TRUMKA: From what we’ve heard, I do. Look. 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 in many areas.
GREENE: Can I just ask you – before we move on, I mean, there have been some who have argued another side of that, which is that, you know, if you get higher wages for workers with a new NAFTA, that could mean more expensive goods. That might dampen demand. That might actually lead to layoffs. Like, that it’s – there are a lot of people who don’t see it the way you do.
TRUMKA: Well, I think the economists agree with me and the mainstream. Look. If we give Mexican workers higher wages, they’re going to be able to buy more products. If they can buy more products, that increases demand for not only Mexican-made products but U.S.- and Canadian-made products. When their wages rise, all of us begin to win.
GREENE: Well, let me ask you about someone who very much agrees with you. Tim Ryan is a Democratic member of Congress from Ohio. He has been watching this deal come together. He was on our air yesterday, said he likes where it’s going but that, quote, “it is very difficult to take the president seriously with some of these negotiations.” Now, for your union, enforcement of labor provisions has been such an important issue for you. Do you trust this administration to enforce whatever new provisions they agree to?
TRUMKA: Well, David, enforcement has been lax. Take a case in Guatemala. It took nine years to come to a conclusion. There’s three cases still pending. One was filed in 2008, and the other two were filed in 2011. They’re still pending. So there’s no real enforcement at all. We want to reverse that. We’ve worked with Ambassador Lighthizer to try to create enforcement. We haven’t seen it in writing yet. We’re told that we will. We want to examine it. We want to look at the whole agreement and then, hopefully, be able to get an agreement that really works for working people in this country and Canada and Mexico.
GREENE: But we should say, it sounds like a lot of this will still come down to trust. And do you trust President Trump to make the tough enforcement decisions that might have to be made going forward to protect unions like yours?
TRUMKA: It’s got to be more than trust. It has to be part of the agreement because whoever’s there now – I mean, Ambassador Lighthizer will, I believe, enforce an agreement. But whoever comes next has to be able to enforce it as well. That’s why we want to see it in the agreement so that no matter who’s in the White House, we have enforcement for working people that doesn’t take nine or 10 years or require us to lose hundreds of thousands of jobs before you can file and prosecute a complaint.
GREENE: How have your conversations with the president been about all this?
TRUMKA: I think he understands our position. He understands that enforcement is important. Look. The Mexicans have a low-wage model, and they aid that by having employer-dominated unions. This agreement, so far, will help eliminate those employer-dominated unions. It will help us enforce this agreement on a regular, quick basis so that wages can rise in Mexico, Canada and the U.S. and everybody ultimately wins.
GREENE: Mr. Trumka, you’ve watched many of these conversations go on over the years. What does it say about our politics today when you have a president who many Democrats, I mean, literally can’t stand and have many issues with, but we have reached a moment when it seems like labor, a good number of Democrats and a president are working together on an issue here?
TRUMKA: Well, I think it should happen more often. I think we should look at the issue and go for the issue. I said, whenever he’s elected – whenever President Obama was elected, I said the same thing. When he does something that’s good for workers, we’ll say so. 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, for workers in America. It’s important to get this right. So we’re working at it. Hopefully, we’ll get to see the whole agreement and be able to go with it.
GREENE: Richard Trumka is the president of the AFL-CIO.
Thanks so much. We appreciate it.
TRUMKA: David, thanks for having me on.
GREENE: And I just want to bring in NPR’s Jim Zarroli, who covers economics. He’s in New York City.
Jim, what did you take from listening to that conversation?
JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Well, you know, labor unions, in general, have been positive about this effort to redraft NAFTA, to make changes. They’ve lost a lot of members since NAFTA took effect, especially in the private sector. So they see this as a chance to, you know, regain some lost ground, especially in Mexico, in terms of working conditions. So you know, that being said, they have really significant reservations about the way this is being carried out. A lot of unions, like the steelworkers, have significant membership in Canada. And some of Trump’s policies, especially the steel tariffs, could end up being very bad for Canadian workers. So I think unions have been trying to balance sort of a general support for Trump’s efforts to redraft these trade – this agreement with a kind of a wariness, in general, about where he’s going.
GREENE: All right, Jim Zarroli covers business for NPR.
ZARROLI: You’re welcome.