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AFTER NAFTA: How Trump’s trade deal helps American workers, and why USMCA matters to Maine

Rep. Chellie Pingree (right) and Rep. Jared Golden (left) joined a small group of mostly Democrat House Representatives to oppose President Trump’s USMCA and leave NAFTA in place.

AUGUSTA – NAFTA has long been viewed as the cause of many of Maine’s economic woes. Developed by the Bush administration but supported and signed by President Bill Clinton, the North American Free Trade Agreement ultimately phased out most of the tariffs on goods traded between the United States, Mexico and Canada. It also opened the door for American companies to ship jobs to other North American countries with lower costs and lax labor rules with no consequences. Maine’s forest products industry and manufacturing would never be the same.

Paper mills began cutting back, some selling off machines for parts before ultimately shuttering entire facilities. Shoe and furniture manufacturers and many others followed suit.

Under NAFTA, companies could leverage lower labor costs in Mexico and Canada to produce goods cheaper, then ship them back into the U.S. to be sold free of tariffs.

North America got free trade, Mexican and Canadian workers got manufacturing jobs. Mainers got job training assistance programs and service jobs to replace the well-paying jobs that had helped build towns such as Millinocket, home of the iconic Great Northern Paper Company.

Hundreds of thousands of jobs were lost across industries in the United States, with Maine among the states most hurt by the deal.

NAFTA has long been assailed by members of Maine’s Congressional delegation. Senator Olympia Snowe opposed NAFTA because it “disproportionately affected Maine” and Congressman Mike Michaud went so far as to work on a new trade model to put forward as a replacement. Bruce Poliquin, who succeeded Michaud in Congress, was also a NAFTA critic.

Enter Donald Trump in 2016. Long an opponent and outspoken critic of NAFTA, Trump made fixing America’s “bad trade deals” a centerpiece of his campaign. Trump promised to blow open the doors to renegotiating NAFTA, calling it the “worst trade deal in history.”

Trump’s critics doubted him, predicting disaster if the bold businessman turned Presidential candidate ever assumed the reins of the nation and did what he promised to do.

But soon after being inaugurated, Trump began to keep his promises on the issue of trade and last year Trump signed the United States-Mexico-Canada trade agreement (USMCA for short).

New provisions of the USMCA touted by Trump’s U.S. Trade Representative would level the playing field for American workers by:

-Requiring Mexico to enact laws recognizing the right for Mexican workers to collectively bargain.

-Requiring all three countries to “adopt and maintain in law and practice labor rights as recognized by the International Labor Organization, to effectively enforce their labor laws, and not to waive or derogate from their labor laws.”

-Prohibiting the importation of goods produced by forced labor, to address violence against workers exercising their labor rights, and to ensure that migrant workers are protected under labor laws.

-Implementing a new labor content requirement that mandates a percentage of automobiles be made by workers earning at least $16 USD per hour to drive higher wages.

These provisions and more were designed to create an environment where companies have little to no incentive to ship manufacturing jobs and other jobs to jurisdictions where they can take advantage of unfair labor laws to exploit cheap labor.

The new treaty, which would supplant NAFTA, then went to Congress for ratification. Impeachment and politics would stall progress for months.

On the campaign trail in 2018, Rep. Jared Golden, the current member of Maine’s delegation from the rural part of the state that was most harmed by NAFTA, had been a harsh critic of the trade agreement. But in June of 2018, Golden joined twenty-six other Democrat members of the U.S. House in signing a letter opposing the USMCA.

Among the Reps signing along with Golden were Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Ilhan Omar and former Rep. Katie Hill, who resigned office after an ethics investigation was opened related to her conduct with staff. They said they opposed a provision related to pharmaceutical companies and wanted changes to the labor provisions of the deal.

For months after that, USMCA was largely ignored in the U.S. House while Democrats pursued impeachment of President Trump. For his part, Golden tried to put on an air of dignity regarding impeachment, but ultimately voted both to start the impeachment inquiry and then to impeach the President in what Republicans have called a “sham” and “witch hunt” process.

Soon after the House voted for impeachment, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Richard Trumka, President of the AFL-CIO, announced that negotiations had finally led to agreement on the USMCA.

“This isn’t a perfect agreement; it still has room for improvement. But it is well on its way to getting there. It’s going to take a few years to begin to reverse the bad and the evil that was done by NAFTA, the harm that was done to our economy and to the manufacturing sector,” Trumka told Reuters in an interview.

“There is no question, of course, that this trade agreement is much better than NAFTA,” said Pelosi at a press conference.

“There is no question, of course, that this trade agreement is much better than NAFTA.”

Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi.

Many thought that with Golden representing a district that Trump carried in 2016 that had also been disproportionately harmed by NAFTA, the freshman Rep and campaign critic of NAFTA would come along for the final deal with Trumka, the nation’s leading voice for unions, and Pelosi signing on.

But Golden didn’t. Shortly before the vote, Golden, along with Maine’s other Congressional Rep, Chellie Pingree, announced they would oppose the USMCA. They were among a small number of lawmakers to oppose the bipartisan agreement, which passed by a 385-41 vote. Others opposing the USMCA in the House roll call vote were Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Ilhan Omar, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, Rep. Ted Lieu and Rep. Ayanna Pressley.

The U.S. Senate is expected to take up the USMCA in the new year. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he wants to work through the impeachment case sent over by the House first, but since the impeachment vote took place, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has refused to release the articles to the Senate.

President Trump is confident the deal is a vast improvement on NAFTA.

“USMCA is a great deal for all three countries, solves the many deficiencies and mistakes in NAFTA…”

President Donald J. Trump

“USMCA is a great deal for all three countries, solves the many deficiencies and mistakes in NAFTA, greatly opens markets to our farmers and manufacturers, reduces trade barriers to the U.S. and will bring all three Great Nations together in competition with the rest of the world,” says President Trump.

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