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

(File photo)
Case of COVID-19 confirmed in School District 69 (Qualicum)

Individual was at PASS/Woodwinds, with a last date of attendance of Jan. 22

The Qualicum Beach Cafe team: from left, host owner Eli Brennan, general manager Amy Turner, host owner/chef Alan Tse, chef de cuisine Todd Bright, sous chef Jack Mitchell and pastry chef/baker Noemie Girard. (Submitted photo)
Fresh start: Qualicum Beach Cafe set to offer West Coast dining

New operators bring wealth of culinary, hospitality experience

Professional hockey goalie Connor LaCouvee of Qualicum Beach. (PQB News file photo)
Qualicum Beach goalie Connor LaCouvee joins AHL’s Tucson Roadrunners

Backstop returns to North America after stint in Slovakia

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Employers might be able to require COVID-19 vaccination from employees: B.C. lawyer

‘An employer must make the case’ using expert science, explains lawyer David Mardiros

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders sits in on a COVID-19 briefing with Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer, and Adrian Dix, B.C. minister of health. (Birinder Narang/Twitter)
PHOTOS: Bernie Sanders visits B.C. landmarks through the magic of photo editing

Residents jump on viral trend of photoshopping U.S. senator into images

A woman injects herself with crack cocaine at a supervised consumption site Friday, Jan. 22, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Drug users at greater risk of dying as services scale back in second wave of COVID-19

It pins the blame largely on a lack of supports, a corrupted drug supply

The sky above Mt. Benson in Nanaimo is illuminated by flares as search and rescuers help an injured hiker down the mountain to a waiting ambulance. (Photo courtesy Nanaimo Search and Rescue)
Search plane lights up Nanaimo mountain with flares during icy rope rescue

Rescuers got injured hiker down Mt. Benson to a waiting ambulance Saturday night

Dr. Jerome Leis and Dr. Lynfa Stroud are pictured at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto on Thursday, January 21, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
‘It wasn’t called COVID at the time:’ One year since Canada’s first COVID-19 case

The 56-year-old man was admitted to Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre

Nanaimo Regional General Hospital. (News Bulletin file photo)
COVID-19 outbreak declared at Nanaimo hospital

Two staff members and one patient have tested positive, all on the same floor

A long-term care worker receives the Pfizer vaccine at a clinic in Nanaimo earlier this month. (Island Health photo)
All Island seniors in long-term care will be vaccinated by the end of this weekend

Immunization of high-risk population will continue over the next two months

Wet’suwet’en supporters and Coastal GasLink opponents continue to protest outside the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Thursday, February 27, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
‘We’re still in it’: Wet’suwet’en push forward on rights recognition

The 670-km Coastal GasLink pipeline was approved by B.C. and 20 elected First Nations councils on its path

Jennifer Cochrane, a Public Health Nurse with Prairie Mountain Health in Virden, administers the COVID-19 vaccine to Robert Farquhar with Westman Regional Laboratory, during the first day of immunizations at the Brandon COVID-19 vaccination supersite in Brandon, Man., on Monday, January 18, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tim Smith - POOL
Top doctor urges Canadians to keep up with COVID measures, even as vaccines roll out

More than 776,606 vaccines have been administered so far

From the left: Midway RCMP Csts. Jonathan Stermscheg and Chris Hansen, Public Servant Leanne Mclaren and Cpl. Phil Peters. Pictured in the front are Mclaren’s dog, Lincoln and Peters’ dog, Angel. Photo courtesy of BC RCMP
B.C. Mounties commended for bringing firewood to elderly woman

Cpl. Phil Peters said he and detachment members acted after the woman’s husband went to hospital

Most Read