U.S. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta told more than 100 state and local officials in Little Rock on Monday (June 17) that congressional approval of the Trump administration’s U.S.-Mexico-Canada Trade pact (USMCA) is paramount for the continued growth of U.S. jobs.
Acosta made his comments before a standing-room only audience at the downtown headquarters of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce during a discussion on the opportunities and challenges facing the Arkansas and U.S. workforce. The event was hosted by Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin and Rep. Jane English, R-Little Rock.
In his opening remarks, Acosta offered an update of the Trump administration’s efforts to replace the longstanding North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), saying the new $1.2 trillion USMCA trilateral trade deal will allow the U.S. economy to keep unemployment low, continue to add more jobs and grow the U.S. economy at an annual rate of more than 3% as measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
“In the last two years, this economy has created more than 5 million jobs, and the unemployment nationally and in Arkansas is at 3.6%,” said Acosta. “What does that mean? That’s means literally in my lifetime unemployment has never been this low. This does not just happen magically,” said Acosta.
The U.S. Labor Department chief credited President Donald Trump’s for shepherding the $1.8 trillion corporate tax cut in late 2017 and leading efforts to remove government regulations put on American businesses by former President Barack Obama as key measures fueling the nation’s current job growth spurt.
“Last year alone, the Department of Labor took $3.2 billion in red tape off the books,” Acosta said of the deregulation push. “That means that 40 million paperwork hours less in the economy. And that is just (DOL) regulations. And that is letting businesses grow and that means more employment.”
In response to concerns about slowing job growth in May and questions from Talk Business & Politics on downward job revisions for the first quarter, Acosta said a trade agreement with Mexico and Canada would help mitigate momentum loss in the job market.
“Arkansas alone exports more than $2 billion in products from Mexico and Canada. And if you have USMCA, that number can increase, and as it does that means more jobs here locally,” Acosta told the chamber audience. “Ultimately, that’s why we need this trade agreement. It is so much better than NAFTA.”
Acosta also said the Trump administration’s renegotiated trade deal with Mexico and Canada was superior than NAFTA by noting that the former pact did not have any labor provisions. He said if Mexico is held to the same labor regulations as American workers, then the U.S. will not experience the massive shift of jobs across the southern border that is often associated with NAFTA.
“This matters because if you hold Mexico accountable to higher labor standards, companies are not going to leave the U.S. to go to Mexico to avoid labor standards,” said Acosta. “We want good-paying jobs and we want safe jobs for Americans. If Mexico doesn’t have similar standards, maybe some stuff will be made over there. But if the standards are the same or similar, we now have a more level playing field.”
For the Trump administration to sign off on the trade pact that replaces a NAFTA pact that has been in place since 1994, both the U.S. House and Senate must approve the measure under a process known as fast track authority.
U.S. Rep. French Hill, R-Little Rock, who quietly listened to Acosta’s commentary on the USMCA trade pact, later was asked to offer views on that issue. The Arkansas congressman mentioned that he was an economic policy staffer for former President George H. Bush when NAFTA was first submitted to Congress in the 1990s. The trade agreement was finally ratified by all parties in 1994 when Bill Clinton was president.
“As the Secretary said, the (USMCA) is a marked improvement particularly as you think about the American portion of the North American content on the labor (provisions),” said Hill. “This is something we are working hard on in Washington, and I am a member of the whip team in the House to get this bill passed.”
Hill added jokingly that Arkansas chamber members and trade groups could help shepherd the USCMA trade pact through Congress if they reach out to Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who said earlier this month that President Trump must reopen talks with Mexico and Canada to tighten enforcement provisions within the trade pact before she brings it up for a House vote.
“All of you through your trade associations and through your personal emails can help by simply emailing Nancy Pelosi … because she is the only person between you and having USMCA ratified by Congress,” said Hill.
During his hourlong panel discussion with Lt. Gov. Griffin, a former congressman, and English, the sponsor of several key workforce bills in the past three legislative sessions, Acosta also touched on technical and job skills training and education, occupational licensing, and apprenticeship for jobseekers in Arkansas and across the U.S.
The Labor Secretary also answered several questions from the business-friendly audience that ranged from the Family Medical Leave Act and developing 401K and healthcare options for small business owners to concerns about the closure of the Cass Job Corps Center in Ozark, Ark., and the impact on the opioid crisis on the nation’s workplace.
Following Acosta’s discussion with local business and legislative leaders, the U.S. Labor Secretary toured the State Chamber’s “Be Pro, Be Proud” trailer exhibit that travels the state to highlight the demand for high-skilled technical jobs in Arkansas. Later, following a brief session with local media, the Trump administration labor chief toured North Little Rock High School’s Center of Excellence.