President-elect Joe Biden participates in a meeting with the National Governors Association’s executive committee in Wilmington, Del., Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020. Canada’s biggest private-sector unions are likely to play a starring role when Joe Biden’s proposed Buy American rules take centre stage next year. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Andrew Harnik

President-elect Joe Biden participates in a meeting with the National Governors Association’s executive committee in Wilmington, Del., Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020. Canada’s biggest private-sector unions are likely to play a starring role when Joe Biden’s proposed Buy American rules take centre stage next year. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Andrew Harnik

Canada’s labour unions could play big role in efforts to avert ‘Buy American’ rules

Protectionism is a bigger force in the U.S. than it was even 10 years ago

Canada’s largest private-sector unions could be among those with their hands on the helm next year when the time comes to navigate the shoals of Joe Biden’s proposed Buy American rules.

The president-elect, a self-proclaimed “blue-collar Joe,” makes no secret of his affinity for organized labour, or of his plan to ensure U.S. workers and companies are first in line to reap the benefits of his economic recovery plan.

“I want you know I’m a union guy. Unions are going to have increased power,” Biden said he told corporate leaders during a meeting this week on his strategy for the economy.

“They just nodded. They understand. It’s not anti-business. It’s about economic growth, creating good-paying jobs.”

That working-class solidarity could be good news for Canada, where prominent unions like the United Steelworkers and the United Food and Commercial Workers have members on both sides of the border.

“We’re going to be a voice, and rightfully so,” said Ken Neumann, the national director of the Canadian branch of the United Steelworkers, 225,000 of whose 850,000 North American members live and work north of the border.

“Our union has a long-standing relationship with president-elect Biden … and he knows who the Steelworkers are, so we are going to work hard to say that Canada should not be excluded.”

UFCW International president Marc Perrone was among the U.S. labour leaders who took part in Tuesday’s economic panel with Biden. The union boasts 1.3 million members across North America, including more than 250,000 in Canada.

“We are currently monitoring the situation and working through our international office to ensure that the views and concerns of our members — on both sides of the border — are front and centre,” UFCW Canada president Paul Meinema said in a statement.

Following that meeting, Biden was jarringly clear: no government contracts will be awarded to companies that don’t manufacture their products in the United States, reprising similar rules he oversaw as Barack Obama’s vice-president in 2009. The United States was struggling back from the financial crisis and deep recession that followed.

Canada successfully negotiated waivers to those rules 10 years ago. It’s also likely that Biden’s unequivocal rhetoric is meant primarily for U.S. ears, considering the extent of domestic tensions in America’s superheated postelection atmosphere.

But those tensions are real, and protectionism is now more of a force in the U.S. than it was in 2009, regardless of which party is in power, said Dan Ujczo, an Ohio lawyer who specializes in international trade.

“There’s almost a universal view that whatever needs to be done has to include some type of a Buy American provision,” said Ujczo, chairman of Dickinson Wright’s Canada-U.S. practice group.

The narrow results of the Nov. 3 election suggest there are plenty of working-class Americans in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio who hold no strong allegiance to either party, he said.

“Those are the voters that are still up for grabs by either Democrats and Republicans, and Buy American resonates there. So to me, that is a significant difference — the tide has become even stronger for Buy American.”

Jerry Dias, president of Unifor, formerly the Canadian Auto Workers and Canada’s largest private-sector union, said he’s confident Biden’s presidency will herald a new era in relations between the two countries.

“I think the United States is going to head in a much better direction as it relates to the safety of the people,” Dias said of the administration’s incoming efforts to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think it’ll be a kinder, gentler nation within the confines of the United States, and frankly, I think the relationship with Canada will improve.”

Indeed, COVID-19 — which has laid bare the supply-chain dependency that exists between the two countries — may offer Canada its best chance to forge closer ties, Ujczo said.

Since getting the virus under control will be Biden’s top priority once he takes office, a shared approach to the production and distribution of personal protective equipment like face masks, gloves and gowns will make a lot of sense — to say nothing of the shared border, which has been closed to non-essential travel since March.

“There’s the political space right now to come together and say, ‘Let’s look at how we create a Canada-U.S. market for PPE, for vaccination, et cetera,” Ujczo said.

“If you start there, then you can say, ‘We don’t need Buy American for that,’ and then it’s an easier conversation that has to go to the next thing.”

Canada, of course, has its own protectionist sentiments.

Dias, Neumann and others say Canada should be taking a page from the U.S. playbook and doing more to ensure that their Canadian members reap the benefits when taxpayer dollars are spent on infrastructure in their own country.

“It’s sad to see that we have bridges in our country that are built with Chinese steel,” Neumann said. “I mean, what don’t we get?”

Don’t assume that the end of the Trump era will automatically usher in a new era in the U.S., even after Biden takes office, warned Michael Froman, who was U.S. trade representative during Obama’s second term.

“There is actually a high risk of miscalculation by our trading partners … who sort of assume that everything is going to be sweetness and light going forward,” Froman told a panel discussion Wednesday.

“The issues that have been at issue between ourselves and our trading partners are very much likely to remain a focus in need of getting resolved, not swept under the carpet.”

James McCarten, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Labour

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Interior Health update. File photo.
86 new COVID-19 cases, two more deaths in Interior Health

The new deaths are from Heritage Square, a long-term care facility in Vernon

A power outage Thursday night left nearly 3,000 homes in Clinton and the 70 Mile areas in the dark. (Katie McCullough photo).
Updated: Clinton, 70 Mile left in the dark after vehicle crashes into transmission pole

BC Hydro still working to restore power to 330 homes in 70 Mile House

A woman wearing a protective face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19 walks past a mural in Victoria, B.C., on Monday, Dec. 7, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Marissa Tiel
115 new COVID-19 cases, no new deaths in Interior Health

There are now a total of 4,970 cases in the region

Community consultation is now open regarding disposal of the former Ashcroft Elementary property, which since 2015 has operated as the Ashcroft HUB. (Photo credit: Vicci Weller)
Feedback now sought regarding disposal of Ashcroft Elementary

Residents of the region can have their say about the future of the former AES property

Health Minister Adrian Dix and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry head for the press theatre at the B.C. legislature for an update on COVID-19, Jan. 7, 2021. (B.C. government)
B.C.’s COVID-19 spread steady with 509 new cases Friday

Hospitalized and critical care cases decline, nine deaths

Seasonal influenza vaccine is administered starting each fall in B.C. and around the world. (Langley Advance Times)
After 30,000 tests, influenza virually nowhere to be found in B.C.

COVID-19 precautions have eliminated seasonal infection

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to a question during a news conference outside Rideau cottage in Ottawa, Friday, January 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Trudeau says Canada’s COVID vaccine plan on track despite Pfizer cutting back deliveries

Canadian officials say country will still likely receive four million doses by the end of March

Jobs Minister Ravi Kahlon shared a handwritten note his son received on Jan. 13, 2021. (Ravi Kahlon/Twitter)
Proud dad moment: B.C. minister’s son, 10, receives handwritten note for act of kindness

North Delta MLA took to Twitter to share a letter his son received from a new kid at school

Lilly and Poppy, two cats owned by Kalmar Cat Hotel ownder Donna Goodenough, both have cerebellAr hypoplasia, a genetic neurological condition that affects their ability to control their muscles and bones. Photo by Alistair Taylor – Campbell River Mirror
VIDEO: Wobbly Cats a riot of flailing legs and paws but bundles of love and joy to their owner

Woman urges others to not fear adopting cats with disabilities

A COVID-19 outbreak at Vernon's Heritage Square long-term care home has claimed seven people. (Jennifer Smith - Morning Star)
Two more COVID-19 deaths at Vernon care home

Heritage Square has now lost seven people due to the outbreak

Chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam provides an update on the COVID-19 pandemic in Ottawa on Friday, Jan. 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Canada’s top doctor says to avoid non-essential travel as B.C. explores legal options

Premier John Horgan says he is seeking legal advice on whether it can limit interprovincial travel

Martin Luther King Jr. addresses the crowd during the march on Washington, D.C., in August of 1963. Courtesy photo
Government reinforces importance of anti-racism act on Black Shirt Day

B.C. Ministers say education “a powerful tool” in the fight for equity and equality

Black Press media file
Port McNeill driver tells police he thought the pandemic meant no breathalyzers

Suspect facing criminal charges after breathalyzer readings in excess of 3.5 times the legal limit

Most Read