The USMCA: Evaluating the Impact of the Trade Agreement on American and Mexican Workers, To President Donald Trump, America’s trade relationship with Mexico was intolerable. He was deeply concerned about the U.S. trade deficit and the closure of factories in America’s heartland. He made a bold declaration six years ago, vowing, “No longer are we going to allow other countries to break the rules, to steal our jobs, and drain our wealth.”
In pursuit of his objectives, Trump exerted pressure on Mexico and Canada to replace their existing trade pact with a new agreement that better aligned with his vision. After several years of negotiations, his efforts paid off. The North American Free Trade Agreement was replaced by the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).
The USMCA’s Impact on Workers
While the overall impact of the USMCA on the economy has been modest due to trade accounting for less than a third of America’s $26 trillion economy, the trade agreement has had positive effects on workers, particularly in Mexico. The novel provisions within the USMCA have empowered long-exploited Mexican workers to form unions and negotiate better wages and improved working conditions.
According to trade officials and experts, these benefits will eventually extend to U.S. workers, who will no longer have to compete with severely underpaid Mexican laborers lacking bargaining power. Cathy Feingold, director of the AFL-CIO’s international department, emphasized that “U.S. workers win when workers in other countries have the same rights.”
However, it is worth noting that the positive impact on American workers may take time to materialize. The comprehensive labor market reforms taking place in Mexico need more time to yield measurable results for their U.S. counterparts. Thea Lee, a deputy undersecretary at the U.S. Labor Department, explained that Mexico is currently undergoing ambitious labor market reforms, and the positive outcomes for American workers will follow suit.
Evaluating Trump’s Promises
Despite Trump’s promises, the USMCA has fallen short in certain aspects. For example, the trade deficit with Mexico, which Trump aimed to address through the agreement, has actually widened. The gap between what America sells to Mexico and what it buys from the country surged from $64 billion in 2016 to a record $139 billion last year.
Moreover, Trump’s prediction of a substantial increase in U.S. auto parts exports to Mexico has not been fully realized. While there has been an increase since 2020, it amounted to only about $8 billion, significantly less than the projected $23 billion.
Alan Dierdorff, a professor emeritus of economics and public policy at the University of Michigan, expressed skepticism about the significant accomplishments of the USMCA, stating, “I don’t expect that we’re ever going to be able to say that the USMCA accomplished very much. I don’t think it hurt much. But I don’t think it helped much either.”
Economic Gains and Challenges
It is challenging to determine which economic gains can be directly attributed to the USMCA due to various unrelated factors impacting trade over the past three years. The unprecedented economic disruptions caused by the pandemic, labor shortages, supply chain bottlenecks, and rising inflation further complicate the assessment of the agreement’s impact.
Another factor contributing to the complexity is President Joe Biden’s extensive efforts to revitalize American industry through infrastructure investments and subsidies. These initiatives add another layer of influence on the economy, making it challenging to isolate the effects of the USMCA.
The Continuity with NAFTA and Modernization Efforts
Contrary to Trump’s bombastic claims, the USMCA largely retained the framework of its predecessor, NAFTA. The elimination of import taxes between the United States, Mexico, and Canada remained intact, creating a duty-free regional bloc aimed at competing with the European Union and China. The core structure of the agreement remained largely unchanged.
Nevertheless, the USMCA introduced significant updates to adapt to the digital age, which NAFTA did not account for. The new agreement prohibits import taxes on digital products such as music, software, and games, enables cross-border use of electronic signatures and authentication, and safeguards companies from disclosing proprietary source codes and algorithms.
Neil Herrington, the senior vice president for the Americas at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, acknowledged the USMCA’s role in modernizing North American trade, stating that it “is a marked improvement.”
Reversing the Negative Consequences of NAFTA
One of the most crucial changes brought about by the USMCA was its attempt to address the negative consequences of NAFTA on American workers. The old agreement incentivized companies to relocate factories from the United States to lower-wage Mexico and then export goods back to the United States duty-free.
To counteract this trend, the USMCA implemented stricter rules of origin for the automotive industry. It required that 75% of a car’s parts come from North America, up from NAFTA’s 62.5%. Additionally, at least 40% of vehicles needed to originate from areas where workers earn a minimum of $16 per hour, namely the United States and Canada, not Mexico.
However, the enforcement of these automotive rules faced initial challenges due to supply chain backlogs during the COVID-19 crisis. The U.S. customs officials prioritized clearing cargo in ports and dealing with congestion, causing delays in enforcement.
Furthermore, the United States faced criticism for overly stringent enforcement of the rules. A USMCA trade court ruled in favor of Mexico and Canada, finding that Washington had exceeded the allowable scope of enforcement. This setback demonstrated the difficulties in implementing and enforcing the agreement’s provisions.
Empowering Mexican Workers
On the positive side, the USMCA has played a vital role in pressuring Mexican employers to comply with labor reforms. Mexican workers now have the freedom to vote on joining unions, approve contracts, and elect union leaders. In the past, pro-company unions in Mexico signed contracts without workers’ consent, resulting in low wages and limited labor rights.
The USMCA introduced the “Rapid Response Labor Mechanism” as a tool to hold Mexico accountable for labor law violations. This mechanism allows the U.S. government to take action against individual factories in Mexico, such as suspending tariff exemptions, if they fail to comply with Mexican labor laws.
Thus far, the United States has utilized this mechanism 11 times to address labor law violations, and Mexico has cooperated by deploying law enforcement and labor inspectors to safeguard ballot boxes during new union votes, most of which have been won by independent unions.
The positive outcomes of this process have been exemplified in cases where new unions have replaced old ones, resulting in improved negotiation rights, wage increases, and bonuses for workers. Manuel Carpio, an employee at a General Motors plant in Silao, Guanajuato, highlighted how the process empowered workers who would have faced immediate termination for similar organizing efforts in the past.
However, challenges remain in implementing the labor provisions. Julia Quiñonez, an organizer of an independent union at a U.S.-owned auto parts plant in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, described obstacles such as deceit, corruption, and frustration. Cases are often referred back to Mexican courts and authorities that should have enforced the law initially, which hampers progress.
The USMCA as a Model for Future Trade Deals
The worker provisions in the USMCA were strengthened during negotiations between Trump’s trade team and congressional Democrats. Katherine Tai, who served as the chief trade counsel on the House Ways and Means Committee and now leads Biden’s trade negotiations, played a significant role in these talks.
The Biden administration regards the worker-focused provisions of the USMCA as a model for future trade agreements that aim to benefit workers rather than solely expanding corporate exports. The success of the “Rapid Response Mechanism” in holding Mexico accountable for labor law violations has been a positive outcome, exceeding initial expectations.
Cathy Feingold, director of the AFL-CIO’s international department, emphasized the importance of workers’ rights and stated, “U.S. workers win when workers in other countries have the same rights.”
Although the overall impact of the USMCA on the economy has been modest, the agreement has begun to yield positive results for workers, particularly in Mexico. The pact’s provisions have improved labor rights and working conditions for long-exploited Mexican workers. While the benefits are yet to fully reach U.S. workers, trade officials and experts anticipate that the fairer labor conditions in Mexico will eventually create a level playing field, benefiting American workers as well.
However, the USMCA’s impact is difficult to discern amidst broader economic factors and President Biden’s initiatives to revitalize American industries. The agreement builds upon NAFTA’s foundation while incorporating necessary modernizations for the digital age. Although challenges exist in enforcing certain provisions, such as the automotive rules of origin, the USMCA has made progress in holding Mexican employers accountable for labor law violations.
Moving forward, the USMCA’s emphasis on worker protection and fair trade could serve as a model for future trade agreements. As labor reforms continue and the mechanisms of the agreement mature, the long-term impact on workers in both Mexico and the United States is