As unions and Big Business prepare to square off in the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, there will be heated debate over the continental trade pact’s impact on job losses and offshoring. But there’s one major source of “cheap labor” that isn’t much talked about: America. And as Washington vows to fix what Trump calls the “worst trade deal” ever, Canada, too, wants to fix its southern neighbor’s labor laws.
US labor has long criticized NAFTA as an enemy of unions, corroding domestic labor standards while spurring offshoring of blue-collar jobs to “low-road” Global South nations. But, up north, Canada’s unions fear exactly the same from the United States—that Washington’s relatively lax regulatory regime is dragging down standards and sucking away jobs.
So the Trudeau administration has reportedly challenged Washington to raise labor standards as part of any revamped NAFTA deal. It has demanded protections for unionization and collective-bargaining rights, and called directly for a ban on “right to work” laws, which many states have used to dilute union power and sink wages, with spillover effects for the workforces of US trade partners. Pressured by unions, Canadian ministers seem to be leveraging labor standards to pressure Trump to make NAFTA, in theory, more beneficial for Canada’s labor force by countering the “race to the bottom.”
Canada currently lacks right-to-work laws, which effectively bar unions from collecting mandatory “fair share” fees that go to the workplace collective-bargaining unit. Long blamed for sapping economic resources from labor and decreasing union density, right-to-work policies have been established in about half of states. Though these states typically have weaker labor protections and lower wages, the laws have been cynically promoted as giving workers “freedom of choice.”
To the Trump administration, the question of preempting state-level anti-union laws under NAFTA is a non-starter. The US Trade Office policy talking points generally reference International Labour Organization standards as a baseline, but leave individual states free to set their own rules on critical issues like wage scales and workplace safety. Washington actually boasts that free trade helps raise labor standards in poorer countries (rather than encouraging US firms to weaken their own labor standards to “compete” globally).
Larry Brown of the Trade Justice Network and National Union of Public Employees said via e-mail that the labor proposal for the NAFTA renegotiations should be welcomed by both US and Canadian workers. “What we have asked for…is a process in these deals that will ensure that governments, acting on behalf of corporations, don’t pass laws and regulations that lower the cost of doing business by either weakening the labour movement, or by lowering environmental standards,” he said. “They should have to come up to acceptable standards as part of signing on to the agreement,” including tackling right-to-work along with weak union protections in Mexico.
Canada’s proposal could challenge Trump to demonstrate his populist bona fides, but would Trump’s militantly pro-business economic-nationalist administration have any interest in meeting Canada’s labor standards? Any such proposal would face fierce resistance from the Republican Congress and conservative states, as well as corporate interests in Canada. Moreover, legal questions would surround NAFTA’s role in controlling the authority of individual states to independently legislate unionization rules under federalism.
Nonetheless, putting right-to-work on the table would articulate an official geopolitical pushback against the free-trade model’s weakness on labor protection. Practically speaking, the dynamics of the talks themselves will be dominated by the United States, which initiated the renegotiation process and is the largest economy in the region (though Canada and Mexico might argue that Washington also has more to lose due to its dependency on regional trade).
According to Bill Murninghan, research director for the Canadian union UNIFOR, “Prospects for adoption in the final agreement? Who knows, but I can only be hopeful that at least one party to the talks is raising these issues officially.”
Canada’s demands could also reflect a cynical desire to counter Trump politically, without much follow-through by the Trudeau administration. After all, Canada has in recent years brokered several trade treaties under NAFTA’s neoliberal model. Even without right-to-work, such accords mirror the mainstream neoliberal global trade agenda that has steered globalization—a development model that Trudeau has continued to uphold, despite his liberal image.
While both US and Canadian labor have a clear shared interest in abolishing right-to-work policies, Scott Sinclair of the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives says that, for Canada’s government, “The real question is…just how serious are they about achieving meaningful progress and whether this is just a tactical position that will be watered down later on in the talks.”
Critics note that Canada’s most recent deal with Europe, the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) , is based on a NAFTA-type framework of pro-corporate rules that promote privatization, deregulation, and expansion of monopolies and offshoring. CETA supposedly incorporated strong environmental and labor provisions as well, but Sinclair sees them as basically unenforceable because of the weak petition process.
“It’s really important to insist that labor standards in NAFTA don’t go down that [same] track,” Sinclair says, “and to challenge the rhetoric of our trade minister [saying CETA is] the most progressive agreement for labor and the environment ever, which is a pretty hollow claim…. The reality, especially in the area of trade, doesn’t always match the rhetoric.”
But if this is the pot calling the kettle black, then it will be up to labor to hold both corporate and political elites accountable. Though the ultimate outcome of the talks is uncertain, Brown speculates, “if Canada, having tabled some strong labour rights language, simply abandons that language at the first sign of pressure, or throws it overboard to get another pro-corporate deal, the disappointment and anger from labour will be intense.”
AFL-CIO Trade Policy Specialist Celeste Drake says via e-mail, “As to how the US will respond, I cannot say for sure, but it will reveal a great deal about where this administration’s trade priorities truly lie.”
There is, for now, at least one unifying consensus on labor left in the US and Canada: a generation of impoverishment and disillusionment across the continent proves that NAFTA has been a global win-win for multinational importers and exporters but, on balance, a transnational lose-lose for workers. The only way to counter those losses is by forging a united front—not in diplomatic chambers but on shop floors, across borders.