UAW’s Williams: Trade problems aren’t just NAFTA

DETROIT —U.S. trade problems, especially those involving so-called “free trade” pacts extend far beyond just drafting a new version of NAFTA, Auto Workers President Dennis Williams says.

And that’s the message he’s given to the Trump administration’s top two trade officials, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.

Williams described the meetings in a wide-ranging press conference on July 17. The discussion covered trade, NAFTA, the union’s organizing drive at the Nissan plant in Canton, Miss., and more.

And he led it off by pointing out UAW’s latest organizing win: A 502-2 vote among adjunct faculty at the New School for Social Research in New York City.

Then he turned to NAFTA and the other trade pacts.

Like other workers and unions nationwide, the UAW is dubious about the GOP Trump administration’s pledge to renegotiate NAFTA. The 23-year-old U.S.-Canada-Mexico “free trade” pact has cost between 700,000 and 1 million U.S. factory jobs – tens of thousands of them in cars and parts — since it began.

The administration released negotiating guidelines for U.S. bargainers for a new NAFTA several days before Williams spoke. They included some labor goals, such as writing worker rights into the text of a new NAFTA, not an unenforceable side letter. But several union leaders noted omissions and vagueness.

One vague point: Domestic content rules, which govern whether a car can be labeled “Made in the USA” or not.

“We have a continuing dialogue going on” with Ross and Lighthizer not just about NAFTA but about all trade pacts, Williams said. “I wish the administration would focus more on manufacturing, though. It’s the key to good jobs” around the country, he declared.

“Wilbur and I had a very frank discussion” about the NAFTA talks, Williams elaborated. “It’s ongoing and I don’t want to give too much hype to it.”

One questioner, quoting UAW Local 551, wanted to know why the union just doesn’t outright push for canceling NAFTA, just as Trump promised on the campaign trail last year.

Local 551 represents Ford workers on Chicago’s South Side. Ford has opened new plants in Monterrey, Mexico, while still investing in modernizing U.S. plants. But 70 percent of the Detroit 3’s (GM, Ford, Chrysler) Mexican-made cars are sold in the U.S., Williams said.

Nevertheless, he admitted UAW must live with political reality — the Trump administration’s change of mind from canceling NAFTA to renegotiating it.

“If you don’t have balanced trade” under a new NAFTA, “you could end up without a good deal for the American auto industry or for Canadian Auto Workers,” too, Williams said. “So we’ve focused on that, and we’re interested in the details.”

Nissan was the other top topic at Williams’ press conference. It’s the union’s highest-profile organizing campaign. The union recognition vote is scheduled for Aug. 3-4 among the 4,000 hourly full-time workers, a majority of them African-American, at the Nissan plant in Canton, Miss.

The campaign has large civil rights content. It draws support from African- American churches and the state NAACP, as well as other unions.

The Nissan organizing drive is also one key component of UAW’s continuing crusade to break through in organizing workers in the “transplant” plants of foreign automakers in the low-wage, anti-worker and anti-union South.

Both foreign and domestic manufacturers have moved plants either to Dixie or to Mexico to escape UAW, decent wages and working conditions and, in Mexico, U.S. labor laws.

Key issues at Nissan are the erratic workweeks, pay, and, most importantly, the Japanese firm’s ability to fire workers at a moment’s notice and for no reason at all.

“Every day, they’re employees ‘at will,'” under labor law, Williams said of the main Nissan workforce. “They (management) could fire them at will. They could discipline them at will. They could have more than 40-hour workweeks at will.”

And the UAW is also stressing that right now, “at the stroke of a pen, they (Nissan) can take away your health care — or have you pay $1,200 a month for it.”

Nissan employs 6,000 people at Canton, but the other 2,000 are temps that the automaker employs through an agency. If UAW wins this vote, organizing them is its next goal.

“A lot of them have come to us and said, ‘Hey, can we organize as well?'” Their situation at Nissan “is unfair, and that’s a problem with not having a contract” there, he says.

The problem for UAW with the temps is two-fold, though. Some temps want to unionize, but Nissan, as part of its anti-UAW strategy, keeps threatening to replace pro-union full-timers with the lower-paid no-benefits temps, Williams notes.

An Auto Workers contract at Nissan would — after bargaining succeeds — indicate how the union could approach and win the temps.

Source: PAI