What were the unions doing at NAFTA negotiations?

The North American Free Trade Agreement negotiations between Canada and the U.S. have been one of the more important matters in the current news cycle. These talks were complex negotiations made even more onerous on the Canadian delegation by the pressure tactics placed on them by the US and in particular by the US President who had little restraint.

It is comforting that the Canadian negotiators, lead by Chrystia Freeland, took an approach which was decidedly Canadian; and that we could all get behind. As the famous negotiation experts and Harvard academics Roger Fisher and William Ury [Getting To Yes] teach, “attack the problem, not the person”. In the face of the insults, threats and misinformation being fed to the media by the U.S. leader, the Canadian team kept its composure, remained polite and respectful and maintained its focus on the issues.

It is commendable that the Canadian team was steadfast in protecting our sovereign rights to protect industries such as the dairy and agricultural sector interests, insisting on a fair and impartial dispute resolution process and stating that our goal was to take the time needed to conclude a treaty that is enduring and meets the needs of Canada for the long term. While in the end there was a need to give in on some matters it seems on first analysis that the deal is good for Canada and is truly a proper updating of the previous trilateral agreement.

One can only imagine how much pressure was felt by the team when the U.S. President and others made threats to be “the ruination of Canada”, to impose punitive tariffs on the auto sector and to suggest that the existing NAFTA agreement will simply be torn up and Canada will be left out in the cold. These negotiating tactics are hardly sophisticated. Imposing artificial deadlines that suit one party’s agenda and making threats to leverage your economic muscle to shut things down if you do not get your way are the tactics of a bully using a limited set of blunt negotiation tools.

We take note that the Canadian team sought guidance from senior leaders in the labour movement including Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) head, Hassan Yussuff, and Unifor President Jerry Dias.  This needs to be applauded and noted. This is an act consistent with the Canadian culture of inclusion and the acceptance of the role of the Labour movement in our society.

Dias made this observation: “I can’t think of any (previous) trade agreement, ever, where labour has played any sort of an active role, NAFTA has been a game-changer for the labour movement and how working-class people are treated as it relates to trade.”

While we do not know precisely what role Mr. Dias played we do know he was available to Minister Freeland throughout the process and including at the crucial 11thhour when the deal was finally reached. It is also clear that the new deal is a boon to our auto industry and ensures that the advantages Mexico and some southern U.S. states have enjoyed in that sector because of low wages and suspect union representation have been addressed in a way that helps level the playing field.

The deal with Mexico, for example ensures that 40% of the content in North American built automobiles is manufactured by people earning a living wage ($16.00 or more). This was something the Canadian labour movement pushed hard for. They saw NAFTA as an opportunity to leverage trade between the three countries to help improve the financial benefits of workers particularly in Mexico. In Canada, which has the highest worker participation rate in unions amongst the three NAFTA countries, we recognized the legitimacy of the labour movement’s role by inviting them to participate in the NAFTA negotiation process.  By giving them roles in the negotiation preparation and as advisors on the how to best guide the process at the table, we are taking advantage of their expertise.  We think we can be proud of this for several reasons.

As Labour Relations practitioners, we appreciate and know that people in the union movement, like Mr. Dias, have tremendous levels of experience negotiating under difficult and trying circumstances. As informal counsel to Trudeau and the Canadian team, Dias adds tremendous value as a seasoned professional negotiator and someone who can coach others in the art of negotiations. He is also an expert on the North American auto industry.

Dias made the following statement which echoes the advice we often give to our clients:

“Getting a deal is easy. I negotiate for a living. Anybody can carve a bad deal, exactly what do they want Canada to surrender on in order to close the deal? The Americans are going to have to start to signal that they want a deal in a serious manner. I think that Canadians are expecting the Canadian team to hang firm.”

So, while we do not know what weight Mr. Dias had in his informal role as an advisor to the Canadian team, he may be surprised to hear that we are really glad that he was involved; both as a voice of the labour movement and as a seasoned negotiating professional.  He has more experience negotiating long term, relationship based deals (akin to a collective agreement) and has had more times at the table dealing with difficult people than any management executive could ever gain over a career.  We are glad to have had him on the Canadian team.