With free trade negotiations between Canada and the European Union well underway, Canada’s largest private sector union is deepening its opposition to an agreement it says will cost the economy tens of thousands of jobs, raise the costs of prescription drugs and mark the end of “Buy Canadian” policies in the public sector.
The skilled trades division of the Canadian Auto Workers union on Thursday approved a resolution to step up efforts to limit the reach of the Canadian-European Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA).
Maintaining that CETA would have “a huge negative impact” on the ability of governments to favour Canadian-made products by granting the EU “full access to procurement,” the skilled trades division of the CAW pledged to work with municipalities across Canada to request “a permanent exemption” from the agreement.
“We will mobilize skilled trades members to protect the powers of the municipalities, hospitals, school boards, utilities and other sub-federal agencies to use public procurement, services and investment as tools to create jobs, protect the environment, and support local development,” the resolution asserts.
CAW economist Jim Stanford told delegates at the union’s skilled trades and collective bargaining conference in Toronto that the agreement would cost the Canadian economy between 28,000 and 150,000 jobs, and exacerbate a trade imbalance that already favours the EU.
The estimates run counter to the position of the federal government, which has said the deal will boost Canada’s economy by an amount that is “equivalent” to 80,000 new jobs.
In addition to removing tariffs on European imports, Stanford said the agreement would make it easier for European companies operating in Canada to import skilled workers from the EU, and tighten drug patent laws, which he predicts will hike costs.
“This isn’t free trade,” he said. “This is much, much bigger. This is a whole arrangement designed to enhance the power and freedom and profit of the private business sector in both Canada and Europe.”
The effect on procurement of big ticket items such as subway cars and buses is a particular sticking point for the CAW. The agreement would require provincial and municipal governments to consider bids from European companies when contracting with the private sector.
“This would be the utter end of any ‘Buy Canadian’ strategy we could have in our public sector,” Stanford said.
Media reports have indicated that there would likely be a threshold for opening up bidding to European firms under CETA: Contracts on goods and services that run more than $346,000, and construction contracts above $8.5 million.
The CAW is among several labour groups and environmental organizations that have mounted a campaign against the deal in recent months, with the Council of Canadians warning that the deal could lead to the privatization of Canada’s public waterways by big European water utilities.
In a press release earlier this month, however, Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada reiterated the government’s commitment to pursuing “an ambitious free trade agreement that will benefit workers and their families both in Canada and the EU alike.”
“The benefits to these Canadian workers and their families are clear: a 20 percent boost in bilateral trade and a $12 billion annual increase to Canada’s economy,” the department maintained.
Former Canadian trade negotiator Peter Clark concedes the EU may be the bigger winner under CETA, but says it is crucial to giving Canada a “competitive position” in the global market that is becoming increasingly interconnected.
“It’s going to cost the Canadian economy more than it is going to cost the Europeans and that’s because we need the deal. We can’t be left behind,” said Clark, who heads an Ottawa-based international trade and public affairs consulting firm. “What we might lose by getting it is a drop in the bucket compared to what we might lose by not having it.”
According to Clark, it’s still too early to estimate how many jobs may be at stake, but says that “a little bit of dislocation” is common in the first few years of any trade agreement.
“What [opponents of CETA] are looking at is the negative side, they’re not looking at the positive side,” he said.
But the prospect of job loss struck a chord with many of those in attendance at the CAW conference, for whom the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993 remains inextricably linked to the gutting of the manufacturing industry that followed.
“This kind of a hit, we can’t take,” said Ed Gould, a trustee of CAW Local 199 in Niagara, Ont., citing the dearth of new factory jobs and the absence of young faces at the meeting, which brought together about 150 members from across the country, as ominous signs for the union.
Gould says he has been trying to mobilize members in his local because “ten years from now, you won’t have a pension, you’ll be paying for your health care, and you’ll probably be paying $6 a litre for water.”
As Clark explains, because municipalities don’t have constitutional powers, they can’t autonomously “back out” of CETA.
But that hasn’t stopped the CAW, along with other opponents of the European deal, from lobbying municipalities to pass resolutions seeking immunity from the deal -- a position that has so far been embraced by more than 35 jurisdictions, including Windsor, Ont., Montreal and North Vancouver.
Not every municipality, however, is on board.
Earlier this month, Saskatoon city council voted down the resolution, believing it would contradict the city’s “open for business” reputation.
“Right now we’re seen as the darling of the international investment community,” Keith Moen, executive director of the North Saskatoon Business Association, told The Star Phoenix at the time. “If the message from council is such that we are not welcome to international trade that interest will surely go elsewhere.”
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