What do Michigan Auto Workers Think About USMCA?
June 13, 2019
Would Michiganders benefit if the USMCA (the Trump administration’s renegotiated successor to the North American Free Trade Agreement NAFTA) is approved by Congress?
Ask the people who have been paying attention, like Michigan-based automakers and their unions, and the answer is clear as mud.
Automakers and suppliers, who spent years defending NAFTA against attacks from Democrats and, more recently, candidate and president Donald Trump, have come out in support of USMCA, appearing on a panel here last month with Vice President Mike Pence to tout the deal.
But maybe not quite unabashedly.
The Michigan Manufacturing Association, which co-hosted the Pence visit, is mostly concerned with preserving “free and fair trade” in an export market that is “the bread and butter” of the industry, said its vice president of government affairs Mike Johnston.
But his members aren’t saying much in the wake of the visit. A spokesman for Magna International, the giant parts maker whose CEO participated in the panel, said last week the company is “laying low on the trade and tariff discussion right now,” and declined further comment.
The unions and Democratic supporters of labor in Congress, on the other hand, have - after several decades of complaining that NAFTA needed to be reworked to include higher requirements for North American content in vehicles covered by the pact and mandates for better pay and working conditions for Mexican workers, both of which are included in the USMCA - are mostly opposed.
In other words, some people were for a new North American trade deal before they were against it. And vice versa.
Which is understandable on an issue so convoluted and complex that a quarter century after its enactment there is no consensus on whether NAFTA was good for Michigan and American workers in the first place.
Chris Vitale, a 25-year member of the UAW in Michigan and 3rd generation employee at Chrysler (now Fiat Chrysler), says that, to most people he knows, the details of international trade are just “too boring, too many numbers. Their eyes glaze over.”
Vitale says he is inclined to credit claims like those from Vice President Pence that 76,000 new American jobs could be created in the auto sector under USMCA. And there is some evidence that the new administration’s trade posture is promoting investment in the U.S.
Vitale says he also believes the new standards in USMCA for Mexican wages would benefit workers on both sides of the southern border by protecting Americans from low-wage competition and ensuring higher living standards for Mexican autoworkers.
“Donald Trump could end up doing more to create a Mexican middle class than anybody in Mexico,” he says.
In Vitale’s view, American trade policy has been “virtually a giveaway by our country” for most of the time since WWII. Negotiators always talked about a level playing field but never delivered one for American workers, he says.
“We acted like the heavyweight that never throws a punch and gets done in by a lightweight.” But you can’t call Vitale sanguine about the prospects for USMCA. The political atmosphere is too toxic, he says. Its opponents are too committed to the resistance.