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).