Neumann vs. McCain on NAFTA

John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, appeared in Ottawa on Friday to praise NAFTA. The Canadian media has almost uniformly assumed that Democratic proposals to renegotiate this deal threaten Canada. In yesterday’s Ottawa Citizen, Ken Neumann, Canadian Director of the United Steelworkers, points out that most Canadians are rightly open to changing NAFTA.


Let’s renegotiate NAFTA
The Ottawa Citizen
Saturday, June 21, 2008
Page: B7
Section: News
Byline: Ken Neumann

U.S. presidential candidate John McCain apparently thinks Canadians, and perhaps American voters, will be reassured by his promises yesterday in Ottawa to defend the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

The truth, however, is different. Citizens in both countries, especially workers, could benefit greatly from a thorough rewrite of NAFTA to put their interests first, rather than the interests of corporate investors who alone have reaped the benefits in the 15 years since NAFTA was signed.

Moreover, a poll conducted in March by Angus Reid Strategies found that only 24 per cent of Canadian voters believe NAFTA should continue under its current terms, as opposed to 45 per cent who said, “Canada should do whatever is necessary to renegotiate the terms of NAFTA” and eight per cent who want to scrap the treaty altogether. On the basis of the United Steelworkers union experience representing 850,000 workers in North America, including 280,000 in Canada, Canadians have it right.

Too often, NAFTA has been used against the interests of workers and communities, by encouraging a rush to the lowest labour and environmental standards and by giving corporations an opening to overturn regulations that operate in the public interest.

A prime example is Canada’s restriction on exporting raw logs from British Columbia, which is now facing a challenge from Merrill and Ring, a U.S.-based company with Canadian timber holdings. Canada is being sued for attempting to ensure Canadian sawmills, which employ Canadian workers, have a shot at getting the logs before they are exported. If this lawsuit is successful, Canada will have to lift the requirement and pay damages to Merril and Ring. Unfortunately, there is no quid pro quo for citizens, workers or communities. In fact, as the representative of many Canadian sawmill workers, the USW is struggling to be heard in this lawsuit.

Here’s a bold idea: Instead of using trade policy to give rights to corporations, why not use trade policy to raise the living standards of working people in each trading nation? Why not make tough environmental and labour standards part of the basic enforcement mechanisms of trade deals, rather than the toothless window-dressing in the NAFTA side agreements on labour and environment?

If corporations are lowering their costs by repressing labour rights, or by exploiting environmental loopholes, offsetting duties should be imposed on imports to eliminate that kind of unfair advantage. Most countries currently impose duties on imported products if those products are made with subsidies. These measures, called countervail duties, are used by both Canada and the United States. NAFTA does not prevent their use.

If subsidizing a company is an “unfair trade practice” resulting in the application of a duty, then shouldn’t a duty be applied when a trading nation keeps wages low by failing to support collective bargaining rights?

The United Steelworkers, along with more and more North Americans, believe trade should be about raising the living standards of the citizens of trading nations. Measures need to be put into NAFTA to ensure that happens. There is no reason to believe that trade deals are cast in stone.

John McCain’s surprising campaign detour to Canada at least provided comic relief to the evident discomfort of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, who would rather that everyone forget the Tories’ apparent effort to meddle in the U.S. election on Mr. McCain’s behalf with a leaked diplomatic memo on NAFTA.

It would only be poetic justice if Canadians used this occasion to put trade back on the agenda and call for a respectful and effective renegotiation of NAFTA.

Ken Neumann is the United Steelworkers’ national director for Canada.

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