Buy North American

Canadian newspapers have recently been flooded with negative stories about Buy America, largely focussed on a single scandalous incident at a Marine base in California.

The potential damage to Canada’s economy has been vastly overstated. To the extent that Buy America shifts US government contracts from offshore suppliers to American manufacturers that use Canadian components, Canada actually benefits. Overall, Obama’s massive stimulus bill will create far more business opportunities for Canadian exporters than its Buy America provisions will take away from them.

Of course, it would be even better if Canada could reap these economic benefits without losing any business opportunities. The Harper government’s efforts to date have consisted of shrill objections to the very existence of Buy America policies. Last week, The Toronto Star featured yet another more pragmatic proposal from the labour movement.

Ottawa’s best way to breach the ‘Buy America’ barrier

Canada should negotiate a binational approach with Washington on government procurement


May 27, 2009

Industry Minister Tony Clement has gone to Washington to lobby for the elimination of “Buy America” policies.

This goal is neither realistic nor desirable for Canada. It would be more realistic and desirable to negotiate a binational approach to government procurement that supports North American manufacturing on both sides of the border. 

The Buy American Act for federal purchases of goods has been in force since 1933. The Buy America Act for state and local spending of federal grants on transport infrastructure has been in effect since 1982.

A Canadian challenge of the latter under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 2000 failed because this deal does not apply to provincial, state or local procurement. The recent extension of Buy America to other state and local infrastructure is equally permissible under NAFTA.

In the highly unlikely event that the U.S. government did agree to abandon the Buy America program, there is no reason to expect that contracts lost by American manufacturers would be won by Canadian manufacturers.

In fact, Canadian manufacturers have been losing U.S. market share to offshore competitors for years. The rising price of oil increased the value of Canadian petroleum products sold to the U.S. through 2008. However, as a proportion of American gross domestic product, imports of all other Canadian manufactured goods fell from 1.9 per cent in 2000 to 1.4 per cent in 2008.

The best strategy for Canada is not eliminating preferential procurement policies in the U.S., but embracing procurement policies that favour goods made in North America over goods imported from overseas.

North American manufacturing is highly integrated, with component parts crossing the Canada-U.S. border throughout the production process. A binational approach to government procurement would increase demand for both Canadian- and American-made products and allow firms with cross-border supply chains to fully exploit the advantages of this integration. U.S. policy-makers might very well be amenable to such an approach for two reasons.

First, Buy America’s objective is to ensure that public expenditure bolsters the U.S. economy. Without such a policy, much stimulus spending would leak offshore through the U.S. trade deficit. While both the U.S. and Canada run huge trade deficits with Mexico, Canada-U.S. trade is very balanced. Excluding petroleum products, Canada bought 93 cents of American manufactured goods for every dollar of Canadian manufactured goods sold to the U.S. in the first quarter of 2009.

Therefore, the U.S. cannot appreciably improve its trade balance by trading less with Canada. On the contrary, buying fewer goods from Canada would reduce demand for American-made components among Canadian manufacturers. Americans do not stand to gain by targeting Canadian producers. And that is not their current objective.

The second reason for Americans to support a binational approach to government procurement is that they have also been losing market share in Canada. As a proportion of Canadian gross domestic product, imports of American manufactured goods dropped from 20 per cent in 2000 to 12 per cent in 2008.

Canadian procurement policy favouring North American goods over offshore imports would help reverse this trend. In exchange for granting Canadian manufacturers preferential access to U.S. government contracts, American manufacturers would gain preferential access to Canadian government contracts.

We believe much good could come from a binational approach to regulating trade. Let’s start with a coordinated approach to government procurement, but let’s also talk about coordinated remedies to dumping by offshore producers, joint approaches to other unfair trade practices, and adequate labour and environmental standards that are enforceable. A joint approach to these issues is the real opportunity for both countries. And we will likely find allies in the U.S. for this position.

International unions like the United Steelworkers, representing workers on both sides of the border, would be strong allies in lobbying for a binational approach to trade that supports North American manufacturing.

In 2002, USW helped in obtaining Canada’s exemption from U.S. steel tariffs. In testimony this year to the U.S. Congress related to Buy America, we have called for a coordinated approach to strengthen industry and create jobs in both countries.

The government of Canada should be making an equally pragmatic case in Washington, rather than lecturing Americans about the theoretical virtues of global free trade.

So, Minister Clement, we suggest you start working with our closest ally on a common problem that has a common solution.

Leo Gerard is international president and Ken Neumann is Canadian national director of the United Steelworkers union.


  • No, no, no. It is ALWAYS a mistake to place interests of producers over those of consumers. The fact that the US is implementing a bone-headed policy is not a reason for Canada to do so as well.

  • It is ALWAYS a mistake to place interests of producers over those of consumers.

    No it isn’t. When the consumer is the taxpayer it’s often a good choice to place the interests of producers first since those producers employ those taxpayers.

    What is always a mistake is coming believing that something, in this case free trade, is always right.

  • It is ALWAYS a mistake to place interests of producers over those of consumers.

    Then placing the interests of producers over consumers with patents, trademarks, copyrights, limited shareholder liability, and capital gains tax discounts must all be mistakes?

  • “It is ALWAYS a mistake to place interests of producers over those of consumers.”

    Some guy who won a faux Nobel in economics demonstrated that this statement is false and such argument stood the test of peer review. Ipso facto (according to Gordon’s own standard of scientific adjudication) he (Gordon) is wrong.

    But then again we do not need Paul Krugman to tell us that defeating claims which include an absolute (screemed no less) are ALWAYS wrong.

  • I’m also opposed to Stephen’s use of the word ALWAYS, but mostly because everything causes everything else and the world is complicated and often the rules change.

    But I still disagree with the above letter. My main beef is that “International unions …representing workers on both sides of the border, would be strong allies in lobbying for a binational approach to trade that supports North American manufacturing.”

    Firstly, international union = American union. In most cases it’s a question of whether Canadians want to take orders from Americans who are seemingly less talented at collective bargaining, or are simply less committed to social unionism because of American history and legislation.

    On average, Canadians have been ignoring American labour leaders and listening to their more talented and militant domestic leaders. With Leo Gerard at the helm of the USWA, steel is an exception to this rule because he is both effective and Canadian. And as a by-product, the USWA is the only union that can really get away with advancing binationalism. This is the exception that proves the rule.

    I don’t think the policies of the broader left should get swept up in the political anomalies of individual organizations.

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