As unions celebrate Labor Day on Monday, many will be keeping an eye on efforts to revamp the 23-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement, and hoping that this time the end result will be good for workers.
"I don't want to see a NAFTA on steroids," said Pete Trinidad, president of United Steelworkers Local 6787 in Chesterton, which represents steelworkers at ArcelorMittal's Burns Harbor plant.
"The first agreement was more for the companies than for workers," Trinidad said.
Like the president of the United Steelworkers International, Leo Gerard, Trinidad said he's happy that President Donald Trump has called for a revamping of the free trade agreement between the United States, Canada and Mexico, which they say has damaged the American manufacturing workers' wages and job security as badly as they predicted two decades ago.
But some say the list of demands presented by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer doesn't go far enough to reverse the negative impact on workers caused by NAFTA.
They have a wish list of their own.
"I believe that any trade agreement must defend American workers by including strong Buy America requirements, robust labor standards, strict environmental standards, measures to avoid the circumvention of our trade laws, and provisions aimed at currency manipulation," said U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky.
"I want a level playing field. They keep saying it, but it doesn't happen," Trinidad said.
Trump: A terrible deal
President Trump has called the free trade agreement between the U.S., Canada and Mexico a terrible deal for the U.S. and has threatened to terminate it if certain provisions aren't met.
The provisions list revealed by Lighthizer calls for, among other things, trade balances between the countries, more autos and auto parts to be of substantial U.S. content, labor provisions and a guard against market manipulation.
Lighthizer said since NAFTA was implemented in 1994 the U.S. bilateral goods trade balance with Mexico has gone from a $1.3 billion surplus to a $64 billion deficit in 2016, and market access issues have arisen in Canada with respect to dairy, wine, grain and other products.
Those contacted agree something needs to be done, but don't necessarily believe it needs to go as far as termination.
"We have a really good opportunity here to fix the wrong things," Trinidad said.
"There are winners and losers in every piece of legislation. Many would agree we've actually been on the losing end with this one," said Marie Eisenstein, an associate professor of political science at Indiana University Northwest.
She said Democratic voters and blue collar workers spoke out so vehemently against the free trade agreement more than two decades ago, saying wages and work opportunities here would decline.
"Twenty years later, they were right," she said.
Visclosky, D-Merrillville, said he voted against NAFTA in 1994 because he felt it would hurt American workers, including steel workers.
"It certainly didn't do what they said it would do," Trinidad said. "They said it would help Mexican workers and raise their wages. It didn't.
"Some of our thoughts came true," he said, referring to the USW's predictions of lost jobs and stagnant wages.
Robert E. Scott, of the Economic Policy Institute, wrote on Aug. 21 that the U.S. has lost more than 87,000 factories since NAFTA was implemented.
But NAFTA isn't the only, or biggest, problem facing local steel workers and others in manufacturing. Scott said an estimated 850,000 U.S. jobs, mostly in manufacturing, have been lost as a result of trade deficits resulting from NAFTA, while 3.4 million jobs were lost from 2001 through 2015 as a result of China entering the World Trade Organization
Gerard, the USW International president, wrote in one of his blogs that low wages — $2.49 a hour for Mexican workers compared to about $20 an hour on average for U.S. steel workers — caused many companies to close factories in the U.S. and move them to Mexico.
He stated many factories are now moving from Mexico to China, which has even lower wages.
NAFTA hasn't been bad for everyone, however. A 2008 U.S. Department of Agriculture NAFTA Fact Sheet stated that U.S. farm and food exports to its NAFTA partners grew by 156 percent from 1992 to 2007. The department estimated these exports to Mexico exceeded $11.5 billion in 2007, while exports to Canada reached $11.9 billion in 2006. Food exports to Canada were at $4.2 billion in 1990, the report stated.
The 2017 Indiana Logistics Directory, using U.S. Department of Transportation Bureau of Transportation statistics, reported Indiana's NAFTA export value that year at $16.36 billion and its total trade value at $28.13 billion.
Ian Hirt, port director for the Port of Indiana-Burns Harbor, said it's difficult to gauge the effect of a trade agreement at the port without knowing the impacts it will have on specific businesses, but added there are port companies that receive shipments from Canada and some that ship cargoes to Mexico.
A better NAFTA
Lighthizer wrote that deficit reduction is a specific objective in the NAFTA negotiations taking place. He also said a chapter on the digital economy will be added to the agreement and labor and environment obligations will be strengthened.
Gerard wrote in a blog that negotiations must focus on improving the lives of people, not boosting the profits of corporations.
Trinidad said he'd like a revised NAFTA to include protections for workers in the U.S., Mexico and Canada.
"I'd like to see it be more lenient with Canada and Mexico than with some other countries," he said, referring to China and other Asian countries. "Some other countries are basically exporting their unemployment to us," he said.
"I would like to see some environmental protections.
"I'd like to see it raise the standard of living and encourage American companies to buy American," Trinidad said.
And he'd like to see a clause addressing infractions by any of the member countries.
"There should be a resolution process addressing this in a timely fashion, not when it's too late," he said.