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The USMCA – Beyond Labor & Autos

The USMCA – Beyond Labor & Autos

There’s been a tremendous amount of ink spilt as of late about the ongoing battle on Capitol Hill over the labor-enforcement provisions of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) and, more recently, about the degree to which the new Rules of Origin for autos will positively impact sector employment.

There is still no light at the end of the tunnel with respect to labor-enforcement impasse. While Mexico recently passed labor-reform legislation that will allow workers to vote on unions and their labor contracts through secret ballots, Democrats maintain the enforcement provisions within the USMCA are insufficient and are unlikely to create the conditions necessary to prevent the continued flight of American jobs south of the border. Republicans maintain the labor provisions are a cut above NAFTA and are America’s best chance of holding Mexican officials accountable (politically and financially).

Similarly, the White House maintains the automotive Rules of Origin, featuring significantly higher North American content requirements, will generate far more jobs the 28,000 highlighted by the U.S. International Trade Commission’s report released last month.

The result of the impasse is ongoing ambiguity over the fate of the beleaguered trade deal and, in turn, the fate of free trade in North America.

While there’s no question these are important considerations and that reconciling the impasse would serve to secure the longevity of the USMCA, there is significant danger in making these issues deal breakers.

There’s more to free trade than labor enforcement and auto-sector employment

The USMCA is about far more than updating or improving labor standards, or even refining Rules of Origin for North American automobiles. It’s is a wholesale modernization of a trade deal that has solidified North America’s position as the largest trading bloc in the world.

While impassioned pleas have been made by Republicans and Democrats, policymakers often fail to acknowledge the impact of the agreement and free trade in general across the broader U.S. economy.

The importance of free trade to America’s economy and industries presents an irrefutable argument for ratifying the USMCA and augmenting free trade in North America.

Canada and Mexico are among the top three export markets for 49 U.S. states, and either Canada or Mexico is the top trading partner for 39 U.S. states. Approximately two million American jobs are supported by manufacturing exports to Canada and Mexico alone.

Since NAFTA was enacted in 1993, U.S. services exports to Canada and Mexico have tripled from $27 billion to $91 billion. American farmers rely heavily on access to the Canadian and Mexican markets with one-third of U.S. agricultural exports going to their southern and northern neighbors.

Much of the prosperity generated by free trade in North America has directly benefitted small businesses in the U.S. which count Canada and Mexico as their top two export destinations.

Looking beyond labor provisions and automotive rules of origin

The aforementioned data should be reason enough to make the ratification of the USMCA a sure bet. And yet, the new deal has the potential to further expand trade across North America and provide real benefits to American businesses and workers.

The intellectual property protections will shield producers against counterfeit goods and spur activity in IP-intensive industries, which currently support 45.5 million jobs that generate 6.6 trillion in U.S. GDP, according the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The agreement also reduces red tape and puts forward fair and transparent regulatory procedures, further enabling America’s small businesses to engage in the import and export of goods.

And while the growth of e-commerce and digital products creates new challenges for international customs agencies and the World Customs Organization regarding the appropriate application of duties, the USMCA introduces new provisions for a digital economy that will help to secure cross-border data flows, prohibit customs duties on transmission of electronic products such as e-books, and see continental cybersecurity collaboration.

The USMCA streamlines customs procedures, harmonizes regulatory policies, promotes e-commerce, offers greater access to Canada’s dairy market and retains critical dispute-resolution provisions for country-to-country disputes.

Broadening Public Discourse of USMCA

Rarely are the benefits listed above mentioned in public discourse over the USMCA, which has become almost obsessively hinged to labor-enforcement provisions. This is not to suggest those provision aren’t important. Indeed, the very impetus behind renegotiating NAFTA was to level the playing field with respect to labor, particularly in the manufacturing sector.

Similarly, changes to the Rules of Origin for autos are important to consider. No other industry has seized on the benefits of NAFTA to create integrated, continental supply chains the way the automotive industry has. Changes to how these supply chains function will impact production and distribution models, as well as employment and consumption trends.

It’s critical to discuss these issues. But it’s equally important the many other wide-ranging reforms outlined in the USMCA aren’t lost or overshadowed by that discussion. Neglecting to consider these benefits would be a disservice not only to the many stakeholders and negotiators who fought hard to ensure their inclusion into the agreement, but to the millions of Americans who would stand to benefit from these inclusions. Given that these same Americans are the constituents of the men and women in Congress, failing to ratify the USMCA over any single provision would be a classic case of members of Congress cutting off their noses to spite their faces.

Candace Sider is vice president of Government and Regulatory Affairs North America at trade-services firm Livingston International. She is a frequent speaker and lecturer at industry and academic events and is an active member of numerous industry groups and associations.

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Ratifying USMCA the Only Responsible Option at this Point

The fate of free trade in North America is hanging in the balance.

That sentiment would have been true 18 months ago when negotiations of NAFTA began. It would have been true six months later when the parties failed to meet their self-imposed first deadline. It would have been true last October when it appeared the U.S. was prepared to sign a bilateral deal with Mexico and exclude Canada. And it’s still true today as the agreement gets lost in the fracas of politicking in Washington.

The impending release of the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) report, which provides members of Congress with in-depth analysis of the potential economic impact of the proposed United States-Canada-Mexico Agreement (USMCA), may very well have minimal impact in swaying Congressional opponents of the deal.

According to a recent report in Politico, the ITC’s analysis is likely to suggest the USMCA will have a negligible impact to U.S. GDP, which won’t serve as a bulwark against complaints by House Democrats that the agreement is short on enforcement mechanisms for its labor provisions. If that weren’t threatening enough, Ottawa has now suggested it may not ratify the USMCA unless Washington removes the Section 232 tariffs on aluminum and steel imports.

Yet, regardless of the ongoing warfare on Capitol Hill and the potentially uninspiring data in the ITC report, the reality is that at this point in time the ratification of the USMCA is the best possible option. The handful of alternatives available will only serve to further destabilize confidence in and certainty around the future of trade within North America.


Democrats have been demanding stronger enforcement of the USMCA’s labor provisions. These demands are in keeping with the party’s longstanding complaint that NAFTA offered Mexico’s low-wage, low-regulation economy a leg up on attracting manufacturers. While the USMCA’s new labor provisions are intended to address this, Democrats argue the agreement lacks teeth in ensuring Mexico holds up to its end of the agreement.

However, creating an enforcement mechanism means going back to the negotiating table, something none of the parties are interested in doing, particularly since it took a great deal of intense negotiation over more than a year to come up with the agreement that’s currently on the table. It’s quite likely Canada and Mexico will demand significant concessions in exchange for a stronger enforcement mechanism, which may negate some of the agreement’s other benefits.

The Trump card

Whether or not the agreement is negotiated is, in some ways, irrelevant. U.S. President Donald Trump has already threatened that if Democrats attempt to quash the USMCA – either before or after a renegotiation of its enforcement provisions – Washington will simply pull the U.S. out of NAFTA, pitting the administration against Congress in a legal battle over trade-agreement decision making that is certain to become a wedge issue in the 2020 presidential campaign. The president recently reiterated his threat to withdraw from NAFTA during a recent interview on the Fox Business Network.

The result would be a return to a trade environment of uncertainty that would surely result in reduced cross-border investment that would adversely impact the economies of all three USMCA countries and potentially stymie Washington’s efforts to negotiate bilateral trade deals with Japan, the European Union and the United Kingdom – all important trade partners.

Forget the whole thing

If the threat to withdraw from NAFTA is simply bluster on the part of the President and ratification of the USMCA ends up locked in a Congressional stalemate, the other alternative is to simply do away with the renegotiated agreement and revert back to the original NAFTA deal. While that would certainly be a viable – and minimally disruptive alternative – the truth is that the USMCA made substantial gains in modernizing free trade in North America, addressing critical issues such as regulatory harmonization, the digital economy and intellectual property protection and host of other aspects that are not addressed in NAFTA. Whether these updates result in tangible gains to GDP and/or employment only time will tell. But at the very least they serve to incentivize those engaged in cross-border trade to continue doing so and perhaps even broaden the scope of their activity. Given that North American trade represents more than a trillion dollars annually, it’s critical to – at the very least – maintain the gains already made over the past 25 years. The USMCA does exactly that and more.

It took very seasoned negotiators and trade experts more than a year of intense talks to arrive at the agreement that’s currently on the table, including the chapters that serve to bring free trade into the 21st century in a fair and equitable manner. It would be irresponsible to do away with these gainful additions in the name of partisanship, and voters would presumably hold their elected representatives to account should they choose to do so.

The best course of action

The responsible and most advantageous thing for Congress to do at this point would be to ratify the USMCA. That’s the opinion of approximately 400 businesses and business associations that are now part of the USMCA Coalition, a collective of like-minded enterprises that believe in the importance of free trade to the U.S. economy and to U.S. jobs, and of which Livingston International is a member.

Given the impressive gains made by the USMCA in fostering an environment of fair and free trade across the continent, and the risks associated with returning to the negotiating table and/or drawing out the ratification of the agreement into the political fray of the 2020 election campaign, it is critical that lawmakers on Capitol Hill make ratification of the new deal a key priority in the coming months.

Failing to do so would put into peril the advantages of free trade on which so many jobs rely, and would serve to reinforce the perception that lawmakers are all too eager to put partisanship ahead of effective representation. 

Candace Sider is vice president of Government and Regulatory Affairs North America at trade-services firm Livingston International. She is a frequent speaker and lecturer at industry and academic events and is an active member of numerous industry groups and associations.