Updated 1:56 p.m.
To hear President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence tell it, the fate of American manufacturing depends on the ratification of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) by the end of the year.
Trump touts his proposed alternative to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as “a great deal” for American workers, righting the wrongs of that landmark free trade pact and bringing the auto industry back to the communities that carried him in 2016 across the electoral threshold.
U.S. Rep. Andy Levin (D-Bloomfield Twp.) begs to differ. The freshman Democrat has dedicated most of his life in public service to labor issues, and as he’s eager to tell anyone who will listen, he finds the labor provisions in what he calls “NAFTA 1.5” sorely lacking. “You go find me a place where [Trump] talks in the USMCA, or whatever he calls it, about workers’ rights, about labor protection,” Levin said, opining that “He literally never says the words; he doesn’t care about them at all.”
According to Levin, the deal isn’t enough of a departure from what he sees as a bipartisan consensus over trade deregulation that stretches back to the President George H.W. Bush era.
He also stressed the importance of making sure workers south of the border are extended the same level of protection as ours in America, and even compared the political situation of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, as both men inherited a politically unfavorable status quo that they could benefit from, regardless.
In conversation with the Advance, he shared his wide-ranging critiques of the USMCA and made a pitch for a “new vision of global trade” in which workers would be guaranteed the same rights and protections as their globe-trotting, free-trading employers.
The following are excerpts from the interview:
Michigan Advance: What’s your take on the USMCA deal as it stands right now?
Levin: It’s not ready for prime time. The labor enforcement mechanisms are inadequate, and they’re not in the text. The environmental enforcement mechanisms are not adequate, and they’re not in the text. Allowing the special resolution panel to live on for the oil and gas industry is not acceptable. Having the long protections for biologics for patents is going to raise the cost of [prescription] drugs for Americans. You know, as Detroiters, we run over to Windsor [Canada] to get reasonable prices.
Neither Mexico nor Canada wanted us to force them to have long patent protections for biologic drugs. So it was just a giveaway to Big Pharma. I’m very active in saying that we are not going to pass this thing, I’ve met with [U.S. Trade Ambassador Robert] Lighthizer three times at least, and he says, ‘Oh, well, we can’t reopen it [for negotiation].’ And, of course, Canada and Mexico all say that.
Here’s the thing. Of the last four trade agreements we passed, three of them they said, ‘We can’t possibly reopen it; it’s been signed; it’s a done deal.’ Then they wanted it to pass Congress, so they reopened it, fixed it, and it passed. Our point of leverage is now … NAFTA has been a complete disaster for working people in the United States, I call this NAFTA 2.0. It’s not that different, unless they change it so it really helps working people, I’m not going to vote for it.
Michigan Advance: The labor enforcement component is obviously a huge issue. U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) spoke about this earlier this week. What would an acceptable mechanism to enforce the labor provisions look like to you?
Levin: I’m interested in what [Democratic U.S.] Sen. [Sherrod] Brown and Sen. [Ron] Wyden are doing in the Senate, I’m interested in their ideas that they put forward. Everybody has to not be in such a rush. This is yet another manufactured crisis from this man in the White House. He kills TPS [Temporary Protected Status for immigrants] and creates a crisis over immigration status for people from Honduras and Haiti, and these other countries.
He kills the situation for the DREAMers, and causes a crisis around that. He’s done this; he shuts down the government, everything, he manufactures a crisis.
My point is that the situation is that there’s something like 700,000 protection contracts in Mexico. And the new NAFTA regime calls for all those workplaces that have these phony contracts where most workers don’t even know they’re with a union, that they should reopen them and have a real election for their union and negotiate real contracts all within four years.
Do you realize how many elections the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) conducts in this country every year? It’s not 150,000; it’s not 120,000 or 100,000; it’s not even 10,000. So how does Mexico, as underfunded as it is, do 700,000 in four years?
Not only do we need to see better enforcement language in the text of the agreement itself, but then we have to see proof that there’s actual implementation — a beginning at least. What we’ve seen today is discouraging. There’s no justice for Mexican workers, and until there can be justice for Mexican workers, you can’t have a new trade agreement that can protect American workers.
Michigan Advance: You said you’ve spoken to Lighthizer a few times. Do you get the sense that he shares those priorities with you? Or that the Trump administration does?
Levin: Those are two different things. Ambassador Lighthizer is the best U.S. trade representative in my adult lifetime. Better than [former President Barack] Obama had; better than [former President George W.] Bush had; better than [former President Bill] Clinton had. He is somebody who comes from a town like I come from; he saw the hollowing out of an industrial small city and I really believe he has that perspective.
However, he’s working for Donald Trump. You go find me a place where [Trump] talks in the USMCA, or whatever he calls it, about workers’ rights, about labor protection. He literally never says the words; he doesn’t care about them at all. And so the fundamental issue is that the purpose of NAFTA was to create a sanitized system where American companies could take their production out of our country and do it cheaper, with suppressed wages, and suppressed environmental and safety standards, and suppressed worker standards all around.
It’s been a disaster and it hasn’t helped Mexican workers because their real wages have not gone up since NAFTA. Most Mexican production workers make between $1 and $2 an hour.
I don’t think the domestic content stuff is going to change this much. … It is not going to lead to a lot of jobs coming back to us. And guess what, all production in Mexico has doubled in the last seven years. And our main companies are not the sole culprits, but they’re a big part of it.
I tell you, I feel like a fool, because I would go around and say, ‘Look at this, the [Chevrolet] Bolt* is made right in Hamtramck, and the Bolt is made right in Orion Township. We have to push for electrification faster to save our planet, but also new technology cars are going to they’re going to keep them close to home; they’re going to make them here.’ And now Ford is going to build electric vehicles in Mexico and General Motors is going to build them in Mexico, and they just have no loyalty whatsoever.
Michigan Advance: During Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to Southeast Michigan last month, automakers seemed like they were anxious for a deal to be reached as soon as possible. Do you think the automakers want this deal done fast, or to a certain set of specifications?
Levin: Oh, I just think they want it to be done. I think they like the suppression of wages in Mexico. I don’t think they can admit it, but clearly, I’ve never had a single person from General Motors or Ford or Chrysler say to me, ‘Wow, I’m really concerned about the working conditions of Mexican workers, or workers’ rights, or wages,’ or anything.
When you talk to them about the U.S. South, they have an interest in the UAW being able to organize down there and level the playing field. Their goal in Mexico is to have as unlevel of a playing field as possible.
I don’t know if your readers understand. In Japan, and Korea, and Germany, and Sweden and England and so forth, including Asian countries, autos are made by unionized workers. And those same companies come here — BMW; Mercedes; Toyota; Nissan. And they purposely go to the South and build plants and they try to prevent the workers from forming a union.
So they have a uniquely anti-union posture here that they don’t even have in their home countries. Our auto companies are disadvantaged by the anti-union stuff in the South, but they’re seeking out this low-wage, low-standard situation in Mexico. So they want it fast, fine, but it’s not in the interest of the people of the 9th District of Michigan.
Michigan Advance: A line of criticism from Republicans and people who are in favor of the deal as it’s constituted now is that Democrats are blocking its ratification because they basically just don’t want to give the Trump administration a win. What’s your response to that?
Levin: When I graduated from college in 1983, I became a union organizer. Nothing to do with Donald Trump. In my worst nightmare, 36 years ago, I couldn’t have dreamed up Donald Trump.
I was very critical of the Clinton administration. I was very critical of the Obama administration. My position on this has been consistent. The one time my dad [former U.S. Rep. Sandy Levin] went for a major trade change, I really disagreed with him.
Now that I’m in Congress and I’m on foreign affairs — isn’t this interesting — I’m on Education and Labor and Foreign Affairs. And on Education and Labor, I’m on the HELP [Health, Employment, Labor, Pensions]* Subcommittee, which includes labor law reform, and on Foreign Affairs, I’m on the Latin America and Trade Subcommittee, as well as Asia.
I’m going to find like-minded legislators from around the world and we’re going to come up with a new vision of global trade. Hey, of course the world is more and more connected — that’s a great thing — let’s all trade with each other as much as possible.
But the point of trade policy in government should be about* raising people’s standard of living, just like in the 1930s in this country. … We’re going to create a floor of decency. We created child labor laws and wage and hour laws, minimum wage, overtime, the freedom to form unions. And that is what built the middle class in this country and the greatest economy in the world.
Michigan Advance: Would you describe your ideal trade policy to be a sort of middle ground between that pursued by the Trump administration and that pursued by the Clinton and Obama administrations, then?
Levin: No, no, not at all. Trump is too close to the Clinton and Obama policy. He said, with such strong language, ‘Mexico is raping us.’ ‘NAFTA is the worst trade deal ever.’ And then he makes a slight change, and he says, ‘This is the greatest trade deal ever.’ I was against TPP [the defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership] because it didn’t have adequate protections for workers and the environment, and I’m against this for the same reason.
He’s giving giveaways to Big Pharma; that’s totally unacceptable. I’m not between him and Obama on that. He’s not putting labor enforcement in the core agreement. That’s just what Obama did … that’s why I said Lighthizer’s better, because he at least really gets the workers. Most of the U.S. trade representatives across Democratic and Republican administrations have been orthodox free-traders who basically said, ‘Hey, trade expands economic activity; it creates more jobs, and therefore it’s good. And there are always winners and losers in the economy. And so we just have to adjust to that.’
I’m all about helping workers who are affected by trade. But our approach has become way too little, way too late for people. And Trump used that effectively to become president. He campaigned on it. He talked a very strong talk about NAFTA, Mexico, all of this.
But his proposals don’t really go at NAFTA’s fundamental problem, which is very specific and very clear. It’s a workers, wages and benefits issue, and an issue of the suppression of workers’ rights that prevents them from getting the message in Mexico. And his little NAFTA 1.5 does not address those issues in a strong enough way.
Michigan Advance: Mexico’s new president [Andrés Manuel López Obrador] ran on a populist, pro-worker platform and is now very much in support of this incarnation of the USMCA. What do you think of that?
Levin: I think it was partly that he didn’t want to have to deal with it and he didn’t want to have to take responsibility for it. You know, what tremendous advantage was it for Mike Duggan to get to run for [Detroit] mayor and rail against emergency management, and have the blame on other people, but have it sort of clean his economic house and be the beneficiary of that?
But he tried to separate himself from it. And I think there’s a little bit of that going on with AMLO. Like, you know, ‘I didn’t negotiate it, but I agree to implement it, I don’t want to reopen it.’
Michigan Advance: Is there a single component of this deal that is going to be the most important to Michigan’s economy?
Levin: No question, it’s labor enforcement. I mean, I’m a big environmentalist, and those provisions are very important to me. I ran on health care; I’m a two-time cancer survivor and I have two kids with Crohn’s disease. That was my No. 1 issue in my campaign.
But what NAFTA has done in the political economy and in North America is about creating a stamp of approval for U.S. companies to ship jobs to Mexico so they can make stuff cheaper. That’s been NAFTA’s basic impact in the world. And so that’s what we have to undo.
Michiganders understand better than some others that we can’t unravel the auto industry taking their trucks back and forth across the Ambassador Bridge, and between the U.S. and Canada and Mexico. So we have to do it in a way that raises wages more than mere productivity gains in Mexico.
It’s maddening because of the cars made in Mexico, what percentage of them do you think are sold in Mexico? It’s a big country, right? But 80 percent of the cars made in Mexico come back here. If they were mostly making cars in Mexico to sell there or send down to Colombia and Brazil, whatever, but that’s not what it is. So that’s by far the greatest impact, and that’s what I’m focusing on for the people in my district.
I want to fix all of it, but that’s the most fundamental part.
This piece was updated to correct transcription errors.