TORONTO -- The president of Canada’s largest union called a major U.S. labor federation’s support of President Donald Trump’s proposed steel and aluminum tariffs “laughable” and “irresponsible” in a scathing letter, showcasing the vast divide between organized labor in North America on the issue.
Unifor President Jerry Dias blasted the AFL-CIO’s support for the tariffs in the letter, addressed on Friday to its president, Richard Trumka. Several American unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO, including the UAW, have chapters in Canada, which Dias said Trumka failed to consider when announcing his support for the tariffs.
“To speak out in solidarity with a president who has proven himself entirely unworthy of the progressive labour movement’s support, rather than fellow working Canadians, is deeply concerning,” Dias wrote. “As Canadian workers now brace for another series of unwarranted trade penalties levied by your government, I urge you to immediately clarify your public comments on this matter and to take steps to ensure Canadian workers are not unfairly punished by this decision.”
Dias’ public spat with Trumka is a rare instance of two major union leaders speaking out against each other on a major issue in public, as organized labor typically prefers to present a united front. Unifor represents about 300,000 workers in Canada, including nearly 40,000 workers in the auto sector. The AFL-CIO is the largest trade federation in the U.S. and represents several major unions including the UAW, which represents more than 400,000 workers.
Critics of Trump’s decision have said Canadian companies might have the most to lose from a potential tariff on steel and aluminum. Canada is the top supplier of steel and aluminum to the U.S., and Canadian companies depend in large part on business in the United States to generate revenue.
Trump on Thursday said he planned to impose a 25 percent tariff on imported steel, in addition a 10 percent tariff on aluminum. During a meeting with steel executives at the White House that day, Trump said he would impose the tariffs “some time next week.” It is unclear if Canada, the top supplier of steel and aluminum to the U.S., might be granted exceptions to the tariffs.
In a statement on Thursday, Trumka praised Trump’s decision to impose tariffs, calling it “a great first step toward addressing trade cheating.” He praised the Trump administration for “effective enforcement” of trade laws, including Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, which authorizes the U.S. Commerce Department to conduct investigations into the impact of trade on American national security.
Attempts by e-mail and phone to reach the AFL-CIO for comment on Dias' letter were unsuccessful on Friday.
'Spitballs from Windsor'
In a phone interview Friday with Automotive News Canada, Dias took issue with Trumka invoking Section 232, mocking him for suggesting Canadian steel and aluminum imports are a threat to U.S. security.
“What are we going to do, lob spitballs from Windsor to Detroit? Give me a break,” said Dias, who was in Mexico City for renegotiations of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Dias acknowledged that Trumka must look out for American workers first, but he took issue with the idea that their gains might come at the expense of Canadian labor.
“I understand that, but he’s also walking a pretty delicate balance because you have a lot of U.S.-based unions that have Canadian members whose dues go to the United States and pay his wages,” Dias said. “So he should be a little more respectful to them.”
While Trumka has yet to say if he supports a Canadian exemption to potential U.S. tariffs, several U.S. unions in support of the measures are lobbying for one. For instance, United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard, a Canada native, has urged Trump to exempt the country.
“To put Canada in the same boat as Mexico, or China, or India, or South Korea … doesn’t make sense to me,” Gerard told the Financial Post in an interview. The United Steelworkers is affiliated with the AFL-CIO.