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

Heather Smart poses with her certificate as the first women in a decade to earn this credential in the Kootenays. (Photo submitted)
Local shift boss blazing the way for women

Heather Smart is the first women in the Kootenays in ten years to receive this certification

Toronto’s Mass Vaccination Clinic is shown on Sunday January 17, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Interior Health reports 2 more deaths, 83 new COVID-19 cases

Health authority also identifies new virus cluster in Fernie

A pair of Okanagan Regional Library reference librarians have created a podcast called Hard Cover that takes a zany but informative look at books, libraries and librarians. (File photo)
Okanagan reference librarians produce quirky podcast

Davin Helkenberg and Peter Critchley are behind Hard Cover

South Columbia Search and Rescue called in the Nelson Search and Rescue and Kootenay Valley Helicopters to provide a long line rescue. Photo: BCSAR submitted.
Long-line rescue needed for injured hiker near Trail

Members of South Columbia and Nelson SAR and Kootenay Valley Helicopters did a long-line evacuation

A sign indicating a COVID-19 testing site is displayed inside a parking garage in West Nyack, N.Y., Monday, Nov. 30, 2020. The site was only open to students and staff of Rockland County schools in an effort to test enough people to keep the schools open for in-person learning. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
4 more deaths, 54 new cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health

This brings the total to 66 deaths in the region

British Columbia Health Minister Adrian Dix looks on as Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry addresses the media during a news conference at the BC Centre of Disease Control in Vancouver B.C. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward)
B.C. announces 485 new COVID-19 cases, fewest deaths in months

‘The actions we take may seem small, but will have a big impact to stop the virus,” urges Dr. Henry

RCMP released this photo on Jan. 27, 2021 of Terrance Jones, 40, a Caucasian man with a closely shaved head, brown eyes, dirty blonde or brown hair, and a thin mustache and beard. The inside of his right arm is covered in tattoos, including one of a face. (Kamloops RCMP photo)
RCMP want public’s help to locate Shuswap man wanted on charge of attempted murder

Sicamous man was arrested previously on Jan. 11 for allegedly breaching conditions of release

Royal B.C. Museum conservator Megan Doxsey-Whitfield kneels next to a carved stone pillar believed to have significance as a First Nations cultural marker by local Indigenous people. The pillar was discovered on the beach at Dallas Road last summer. Museum curatorial staff have been working with Songhees and Esquimalt Nation representatives to gain a clearer picture of its use. (Photo courtesy Royal BC Museum)
Stone carving found on Victoria beach confirmed Indigenous ritual pillar

Discussion underway with the Esquimalt and Songhees about suitable final home for the artifact

Former Vancouver Giants forward Evander Kane is seen here in Game 7 of the second round of the 2009 WHL playoffs against the Spokane Chiefs (Sam Chan under Wikipedia Commons licence)
Gambling debts revealed in details of bankruptcy filing by hockey star Evander Kane

Sharks left winger and former Vancouver Giants player owes close to $30 million total

Othman “Adam” Hamdan, pictured in front of Christina Lake’s Welcome Centre, was acquitted of terrorism related charges in 2017. He has been living in Christina Lake since November 2020. Photo: Laurie Tritschler
Man acquitted on terrorism charges awaits deportation trial while living in Kootenays

Othman Ayed Hamdan said he wants to lead a normal life while he works on his upcoming book

B.C. Premier John Horgan wears a protective face mask to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 prior to being sworn in by The Honourable Janet Austin, Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia during a virtual swearing in ceremony in Victoria, Thursday, November 26, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Premier Horgan calls jumping COVID vaccine queue ‘un-Canadian’

Horgan says most people in B.C. are doing their best to follow current public health guidelines

Vernon’s Noric House long-term care facility is dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak. (Jennifer Smith - Morning Star)
COVID-19: Two more deaths at Vernon’s Noric House

Total deaths climb to 17 at local long-term care outbreaks

A change to the drive thru sign at the Tim Hortons in Summerland came before Summerland council on Jan. 25. (John Arendt - Summerland Review)
Summerland council approves variance for drive-thru sign

Questions raised about why issue was brought to council table

Most Read