Like most people, I’ve watched the first weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency with a great deal of anxiety.
The string of recent executive orders offers a glimpse into the mindset of the Trump administration — one guided by fear, intolerance, and isolationism. The Trump message, however regressive, has been amplified in part by the anger and insecurity of disenfranchised working-class voters. If you wonder how unemployed workers could put their faith in a self-serving billionaire to build a fairer economy, you’ve overlooked how chronic insecurity and hopelessness can lead people down desperate and dangerous paths.
Voters flocked to Trump partly due to his attack on free-trade agreements such as NAFTA. These agreements have long been a sticking point for unions, and labour leaders (such as Unifor’s Jerry Dias) who have called for a rethink of free trade in light of Trump’s election victory risk being labelled as supporters of the president’s economic policies. Anyone who fails to see the broader political context — and the fundamental differences between how Trump and unions view trade — has not been paying close enough attention.
Over my long tenure as an activist and then leader of one of Canada’s most influential labour unions in its day — the Canadian Auto Workers — I’ve seen the steady erosion of good, middle-class jobs.
I was elected president of the CAW in 1992, just as mega-corporations began pushing the boundaries of economic globalization. Manufacturing towns, such as Windsor, St. Catharines, and Hamilton, were threatened as global supply chains grew more complex, facilitated by “free trade.” Factory production, and thousands of associated jobs, were exported to low-wage and union-free corners of the world.
We were told it was part of an economic evolution that would usher in greater prosperity for workers, greater co-operation across borders, and the emergence of service- and knowledge-based work. These promises hardly came to pass.
That logic underpinned the signing of NAFTA in 1994 — a trade pact built on an agreement between Canada and the U.S. struck in 1988.
CAW and other North American unions strongly opposed both trade deals. In fact, less than one year into the job, I stood on Parliament Hill alongside half a million workers and concerned citizens as part of a mass rally against NAFTA, and in support of decent jobs.
We protested not because we were opposed to trade, as some conservative critics have unfairly charged, but because these deals and the new rules put trade policy and economic development at odds.
The deals restricted how and where governments could purchase goods and services, and how they managed trade flows and production across most industries. It also bound them to greater deregulation and privatization.
At the same time, private investors — including billionaires like Donald Trump — got new tools to sue governments over public policies that impeded their right to make a profit. Firms have used NAFTA’s notorious Chapter 11 many times to undermine Canadian laws and regulations. Virtually unenforceable labour rights made NAFTA an attractive sell to these investors, too.
Perhaps free trade’s most significant impact on the North American economy has been felt in the auto sector.
In the decades prior to the first Canada-US trade accord, auto trade between our nations was governed by the Automotive Products Trade Agreement, or Auto Pact. The Pact was designed to balance both trade and investment between our two countries in a mutually beneficial way.
Shortly after its inception in 1965, new facilities were built in Canada, largely to meet Canadian content obligations under the agreement, including assembly plants in Ste. Therese and St. Thomas, and a major parts facility in Kitchener, among others.
So effective was this trade policy that our union recommended its provisions be expanded to include Japanese and Korean automakers who were beginning to import vehicles to North America in the 1980s.
Despite our protests, the Auto Pact was eventually dismantled in 2001 — an order by the World Trade Organization. And although neither NAFTA nor the Canada-US free-trade deal killed the Auto Pact, they hammered many of the nails into its coffin by lifting important industry safeguards, eliminating Canadian production requirements and weakening other core provisions.
It should come as no surprise that the Ste. Therese, St. Thomas, and Kitchener plants have all closed, eliminating thousands of good, middle-class jobs. They’re just three examples among countless others. Those workers see themselves as collateral damage to free trade. And, in many respects, they’re right.
The union movement has long tried to appeal to progressive political parties to join the fight against wrong-headed trade deals such as NAFTA, in favour of trade policy guided by bold new ideas reconnecting trade with economic and social development. Few have listened.
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It should be no surprise, then, that populist political candidates who openly criticize trade deals will win favour among the working class. Bernie Sanders garnered tremendous appeal in his unsuccessful attempt to win the Democratic nomination. But so, too, did Donald Trump on the Republican side.
Trade agreements should be carefully re-examined as part of a global trade policy re-evaluation. Ensuring that our trade, employment, environmental, and social development goals are in sync is a good start. NAFTA should be renegotiated under these terms, too. I’d encourage policy-makers take a sober and objective look at the effects free-trade policy have had on people. Boasting that global trade is higher and that businesses are more competitive offers nothing to the displaced worker who can’t afford to pay the bills.
Failure to address these problems will continue to have dire consequences. Right-wing demagogues such as Trump, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Marine La Pen in France, and Nigel Farage in the U.K. have stolen the progressive trade narrative and turned it on its head.
They’ve managed to scapegoat workers in developing countries, instead of standing in solidarity with them. Trump claims to protect working people but appears okay with undermining collective bargaining rights.
Trade policy, rather than being connected with social and economic development, is being used as a weapon to promote aggressive tax and regulatory reforms and stimulate hatred and fear.
Unifor and other Canadian unions are attempting to carry on the long-standing campaign for fair trade and global equality, and I commend them for that.
The union movement was founded on the principles of human rights, social justice, equity, and solidarity. These principles form the basis of its criticism of free trade. Unions must speak out as loud as ever to criticize wrong-headed trade deals — to remind the public why we’ve been protesting against such deals for decades, and why putting their faith in a billionaire demagogue to champion progressive trade reform is a fool’s game.
Buzz Hargrove was national president of the Canadian Auto Workers Union (now part of Unifor) from 1992 to 2008.
Full disclosure: some TVO employees are represented by Unifor.
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