WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s announcement of tariffs on steel and aluminum is a “positive step” toward protecting American jobs, the head of the country’s largest labor federation told EFE.
“This is the first time that people have not only talked about the problem, but they’ve actually done something to fix the problem,” Richard Trumka said in an exclusive interview with EFE at AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, just a block away from the White House.
Organized labor has been sounding the alarm for decades about “predatory” pricing by foreign exporters, he pointed out.
“This is the first step in enforcing the trade laws that we actually have and we think this is a good thing for both Mexican workers and US workers,” Trumka said of Trump’s proposal to impose tariffs of 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum in order to protect US industry, something not well received internationally and which has raised the risk of a trade war.
Trump is “closer aligned with us on trade than we’ve had for quite some time,” the 68-year-old Trumka said when asked to compare the incumbent with past presidents.
People in the administration who favor the tariffs, including Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and US Trade Reprehensive Robert Lighthizer, are right to seek to have “laws enforced fairly and evenly across the board,” the labor leader said.
For that reason, Trumka expressed surprise at economists’ warnings of a possible trade war, among them the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which called the tariffs “absurd.”
Critics are misrepresenting the tariffs as “something extraordinary,” Trumka said. “When somebody’s not in compliance, we have the right to apply tariffs to neutralize their actions.”
The AFL-CIO represents more than 12 million workers, and includes iron and steel workers unions.
About whether the application of tariffs should be across the board, as promoted by the White House, Trumka said the policy “needs to be refined,” urging exemptions for some countries.
“Canada should be out, I’m not so sure about Mexico,” he said.
Trumka also spoke out against the myth of globalization, which he believes is behind a last-ditch defense of free-trade ideologues.
“The rules of globalization have been written for workers to lose,” he said, blasting free-trade absolutists for trying to attribute problems to impersonal economic forces.
“The economy is nothing but a set of rules, those rules are made by the men and women we elect, those rules decide the winners and the losers, and for too long those rules have been written so that workers lose,” the AFL-CIO president said.
He gave as an example the case of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), in force since 1994 among the US, Canada and Mexico, a pact that the AFL-CIO has opposed from the start.
“Well, you have to look at what’s happened with NAFTA, and on both sides of the border it’s driven down wages,” Trumka said.
In Mexico, where the minimum wage is $8 per day, “purchasing power has dropped 80 percent in the last 30 years, the same thing has happened in the United States,” he said.
Trump ordered the renegotiation of NAFTA upon arriving in the White House after repeatedly describing it as “a disaster,” and this Monday the seventh round of talks on the matter ended in Mexico without any substantial progress.
Trumka noted that the ones who like the existing trade agreements and helped design them are the big corporations quoted on the New York Stock Exchange, where the main index plunged more than 44 points the day Trump announced the tariffs.
“Wall Street’s hair is on fire because they’re used to getting their own way,” Trumka said. “They don’t care about jobs in Mexico and the United States, only their stock prices.”
As a final remark, Trumka rejected criticism from progressive sectors that accuse the AFL-CIO, traditional allies of the Democrats, with backing Trump’s trade protectionism.
“We support issues and when a politician supports our issues, we support them,” Trumka said. “We’re held captive by neither party.