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AFL-CIO President Touts Labor's Role In Improving New Trade Deal

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka addresses the Economic Club of Washington on April 23, 2019.

A top national labor leader is touting a new multilateral trade deal, and says his union side much improved the Trump administration's initial proposal.

The comments from Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, came Wednesday, just before the House overwhelmingly approved the pact called the USMCA.

The new deal between the United States, Mexico and Canada, which now heads to the Senate, would replace the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA.

Meanwhile, President Trump on Tuesday night lauded the "great" new trade deal during a campaign rally in Michigan — a state where dislike of NAFTA runs high.

"We're getting rid of NAFTA, which I think is the worst trade deal ever," the president said to cheers.

As a candidate in 2016, Trump pledged to scrap NAFTA. That promise played well in battleground states in the Midwest. As president, he says it's a promise kept.

Another politician who's said great things about the USMCA this week: Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

But in her telling, most of the credit for a much-improved trade agreement does not go to Trump, but to the AFL-CIO, which for the first time ever played a significant role as a trade deal was being negotiated.

Speaking to NPR, Trumka said the earlier version of the USMCA that the Trump administration initially pushed was no better than NAFTA. He called it a "sham," but said it's since been fixed.

Unions blame NAFTA for the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs in the U.S. as production of cars and other products shifted to low-wage plants in Mexico. The USMCA, for instance, increases how much domestic content cars must have to avoid tariffs. But more importantly, Trumka said, unions have a greater voice in enforcing the deal. That's a major change from NAFTA.

Still, he knows there are skeptics. NPR asked Trumka to react to statements from a local union activist in Ohio, who pointed to the recent closing of the giant GM assembly plant in Lordstown, and worried that the USMCA will be no better than NAFTA when it comes to protecting American jobs. The activist said the new deal may be better on paper, but he's not going to feel good until he actually sees it put to the test.

"I hug him and say I'm in the same place," Trumka said he'd say to the activist. "I mean, look, we're gun shy. We've had 25 years of trade agreements that have been nothing but hurt workers in the American economy."

The AFL-CIO leader then cautioned: "If we get complacent, if we look the other way and we stop enforcing it, he's absolutely right. It'll just slide back to where it was."

When asked about a boast from Trump at this week's big Michigan rally that labor "loves" him, Trumka grimaced a bit.

"You have to look at the entire package," he said. "And we've been keeping score for three years now."

Trumka then listed instances in which he believes Trump has failed union members. He said the president has gutted health and safety rules, packed the National Labor Relations Board with corporate lawyers, and proposed eliminating overtime pay for millions.

Trumka added that the president should "be careful" about using the USMCA as a campaign pitch next year as he runs for reelection.

"I'll make you a deal," Trumka said. "I'll be willing to let him take credit for that if he takes ownership of all the bad things he did to workers as well."

Still, Trumka was marking an early Christmas present for union members — even though the new deal requires Senate approval.

"NAFTA is no more," he said. "It's been replaced by a bill that is far more worker-friendly and more effective."

The radio version of this story published at 5:09 a.m. ET.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.