The largest union in the United States, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), recently came out swinging against the new North American Trade agreement — a sobering reminder that Canada’s struggles in the U.S are far from over.
In the wake of the U.S. ratification of the North American trade pact, the union put out a news release. The statement was not a surprise; its target, however, was.
The UFCW’s criticism focused squarely on Canadian ranchers. Specifically, the union lamented the absence of Country of Origin Labelling (COOL) requirements from the trade deal. "A trade agreement without COOL is terrible for sustainable jobs and food safety." And, if there was any doubt that the UFCW was talking about one type of food in particular, the press release adds, "Keeping this information hidden endangers our health and destroys middle class meat processing jobs across our country."
For the Canadian beef industry — which fought hard against COOL legislation and in fact reported losses of $640 million per year the last time the Americans imposed the labelling requirements before they were repealed in 2015 — this issue is anything but small.
It’s not clear whether COOL will indeed come back; its absence from the new North American deal is a victory of sorts for western Canadian agriculture producers. What is clear is that powerful and varied interests in the U.S. such as the UFCW will not stop pushing for it. For COOL and other challenges on the agriculture front, industry, provincial and federal government officials have to keep in place the staff, money and other resources that were put in place to push for the new North American trade agreement.
Taking the foot off the gas or worse, cutting or moving resources to other markets, is a huge mistake. The cost of digging out from under the last time COOL was imposed, the union’s renewed advocacy that has opened a new front on that war, and the daily difficulties of dealing with the Trump administration all make the case for proactive engagement — and footing the associated bill.
The new agreement is still important and a victory for Canada. For the day-to-day flow of goods across the border, it provides relative certainty, including that there are rules governing the trade, and recourse if there are problems. But the key phrase is "relative," not absolute, certainty. For sectors such as beef or the grain trade, where there have been long-simmering issues, a new agreement is not enough.
Canada now has to spend the same time, effort and money to ward this off, including regular meetings with state legislators and government officials to build trust, confidence and familiarity. Very little of this will have immediate payoff, but in the long run is critical.
This extra work with — and travel to — the United States will likely seem unfamiliar as Canada has traditionally benefited from a globally unprecedented and abnormal level of access and lack of friction with the U.S. But that is looking backward. Recent history, and such issues as national security tariffs on steel and aluminum and uranium and autos, demonstrate those days are past and we need to look ahead and prepare.
This type of spending is the new cost of doing business in the U.S., where Canada sends 75 per cent of its overall exports and 54 per cent of its agricultural exports.
Export Development Canada, which is regarded as a resource for entering and developing markets, has opened offices in the U.S. The government of Alberta has opened a foreign office in Houston, and western provincial governments are investing time and attention with trips to the U.S. and hosting U.S. state meetings in Canada.
But to stay the course, they need more vocal support from those who most need and benefit from proactive engagement and who, as with COOL, stand to suffer the most when it is missing.
Thanks to the latest salvos from UFCW, Canadian agriculture and, in particular, individual farmers have a clear reminder they, too, need to stand up and make their voices heard.
Carlo Dade is the director of the Trade & Investment Centre at the Canada West Foundation.