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Congressman John Conyers

Representing the 13th District of Michigan

Billionaires posing as populists won’t support trade deals for working people

August 11, 2017
Op-eds

Last week, President Trump’s administration notified Congress of his intent to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Act, better known as NAFTA.  As someone who fought against NAFTA’s passage and who has watched unfair competition with low-wage nations tear apart his district—count me among the unimpressed. This is likely to be just another trade deal written by billionaires for the benefit of billionaires.

Donald Trump narrowly won my home state in 2016 on a simple promise: he was going to undo, or scrap the unfair trade deals that were hurting Michigan workers.  He promised this despite his past support for free trade, but regardless of his history, people believed he honestly opposed trade deals like NAFTA and the Trans Pacific Partnership.

Regardless of Trump’s sincerity, he appeared to give voice to the angst that Michigan workers rightfully feel about the impact of NAFTA over the past 20 years. Our workers are tired of competing against Mexican workers who make pennies on the dollar. Michiganders hate that our auto trade deficit—in our largest manufacturing industry—has tripled since NAFTA was passed to over $130 billion as of 2013.

And while NAFTA isn’t the only globalized trade force driving down American wages, Michiganders feel like it was the slippery slope that led so many manufacturers to pack up and leave.  Workers in Michigan feared that Hillary Clinton would not be in their corner on trade. That was costly for her, ultimately proving fatal in the narrow loss she suffered in Michigan.

Decades of losses under NAFTA aren’t easy to fix. Our economy has become so intertwined with Mexico’s that we cannot simply end NAFTA—we have to reform it.  That requires work and that requires a new approach.  To succeed, we need real outsiders who represent working people to write our trade deals—not billionaires like Betsy DeVos and Wilbur Ross and Steven Mnuchin, who will always put Wall Street before Detroit.

Right now, President Trump is relying on donors, family and staff to tell him what a good deal looks like.  With the exception of his Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer, who has a reputation as an independent on these matters, Trump’s people are the same ones who have fought for NAFTA and its successors to make it easier to offshore jobs, break up unions, and force workers to compete against people being paid a few dollars a day.

The reason I oppose these billionaire former CEOs writing our trade laws is simple: bargaining power.  If their workers in the United States want higher wages, a CEO can bargain them down by threatening to offshore their jobs.  If environmental agencies or activists want them to stop damaging the environment, the corporate executives call them job killers and threaten to move to a country with fewer regulations and a weaker civil society.

If we want to have fair trade, then we need to be able to enforce the restrictions that make trade fair. But that’s easier said than done.  Enforcing rules and regulations is hard at home and it only gets harder oversees. If Trump gets his way, and guts the American agencies who oversee foreign countries compliance with existing trade rules—it’s going to be nearly impossible.

So far, Trump’s done very little to encourage those who want a fair renegotiation of NAFTA.  After a campaign where he talked tough, he has done little as president to back it up.  He called China a currency manipulator repeatedly during the campaign, but now he says they are not—all while his son-in-law’s family business pitches deals to Chinese investors on their access to President Trump.

At this point in his struggling presidency, Donald Trump needs to do something to fulfill his populist promises and that isn’t unconstitutional, unwise and against American’s interests. Renegotiating NAFTA to protect American workers’ jobs—and workers abroad from exploitation—could be that act.  In order to do so, he needs to have labor unions, consumer advocates, and environmental and safety regulators leading—not advising, but leading—that effort. 

We need people who care deeply about the full implications of trade to be heard with this deal. What we don’t need is another trade deal written by big business for big business.  Unfortunately, looking at Trump’s Cabinet and the people who we know have access to him, another big business trade deal seems like exactly what he’s going to push. We must remain vigilant and prepared to hold his feet to the fire to ensure good jobs for Michigan families.