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Rethinking Trade - Season 1 Episode 39: President Biden Could End the COVID Pandemic at This Week’s UN Summit - Will He?

Getting the world vaccinated and ending the pandemic is a political choice: World leaders have the medical, technical and financial capacity. To produce enough vaccines involves three clear steps: getting intellectual property monopoly barriers out of the way through a temporary WTO TRIPS waiver, technology transfer through sharing the recipes, and funding global production so the world is not reliant on a few monopoly sources.

With this year’s United Nations General Assembly now underway and President Biden’s upcoming COVID Summit around the corner, the U.S. has a powerful opportunity to end the pandemic. Unfortunately, the targets for Biden’s COVID summit exclude making a final deal on the TRIPS waiver or any others steps to share vaccine recipes with the world so more shots can be produced.

To discuss all of this, we are joined by longtime HIV and social justice activist Matthew Rose, who leads U.S. policy and advocacy work at Health GAP and has been deeply involved in the fight for the TRIPS waiver.

Click here to sign the petition.

Click here to learn more about Health GAP.

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Music: Groove Grove by Kevin MacLeod.

Link: https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3831-groove-grove.

License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Transcribed by Sally King

Ryan 
Welcome back to Rethinking Trade where we don't just talk about trade policy, we fight to change it. I'm Ryan and I'm joined once again by our in-house trade expert, Lori Wallach. Today, Lori and I are joined by our friend and coalition partner Matthew Rose. Matthew is the director of US policy and advocacy at health Global Access Project or Health GAP, which we'll talk a bit more about later in the episode. As we speak, world leaders are gathering for a largely virtual United Nations General Assembly. As a side event to the Assembly on Wednesday, President Biden is hosting a global COVID-19 summit to quote, identify concrete actions, and set "ambitious targets to end the pandemic." Lori, could you frame the UN meeting for us in the context of the fight to get the world vaccinated, and then we can talk a bit about what to expect from this COVID summit.

Lori Wallach 
So ideally, this UN summit, where heads of state from around the world get together every year should be the place where finally the world comes together, to agree on a concrete plan to end the pandemic. At this moment, there is no plan. And as a political choice. We have the technological the medical, the financial means to end the pandemic. Now, these world leaders need to choose to do so. And unfortunately, the way it looks like the agenda is prepared, which is a lot of speechifying, and the way that Biden's so-called COVID summit has an agenda and targets that largely ignore the core issues undermining global access to vaccines, which is the key step to trying to end the pandemic. I can't say that's a very auspicious prospect, that what should be the meeting to end the pandemic is actually going to deliver the Biden summit is all about sharing existing doses and donating doses. But adding a billion more doses to the pledge of rich countries giving poor countries doses does not fix the 10 billion dose-gap in the supply or distribution that now has less than 2% of people in poor countries, getting vaccines and allows the COVID variants to be brewing around the world wiping out unvaccinated people destroying people's lives and livelihoods. And the agenda, the targets for the Biden summit, in no way take on the corporate monopoly control by Big Pharma entities that is causing vaccine apartheid worldwide. So Matt rose, you are a person who has been a leader in these global access to medicine fights for a very long time. How do you see it?

Matthew Rose 
It's interesting the way you framed it, Lori because I think that what popped out of me first about the summit is there's nothing new here. There is nothing being said or done to get us further along the path. The targets that they put out are not that different from what the WHO has already identified as targets. We've done the pledging thing when we had our meeting, back in June when the G7 got together, and of those 500 million doses that the President was going to donate them, that promise to donate, they have yet to be materialized. And they're at the back of the queue when it comes to doses coming out of the COVAX system. So all we've seen, since the big announcement that we were going to say let's break pharma control. Let's make sure that doses are available back in May, when we said the trips waiver should go forward is a lot of just hoo-ha in action. In a world where millions of people are still suffering from the effects of COVID where we're watching variants continue to rise around the world and continue to wreak havoc, reigniting some of the places where we thought we were doing good. And it leads you to question are we going to actually end this pandemic? Because we've had these meetings before. Why is this different? And so far, what's been put on the table looks like more of the same, which has fundamentally not gotten us to a place of ending a pandemic.

Ryan 
Let's talk specifically about one of those big demands to end the pandemic. That is a solid proposal, one being made by governments and civil society organizations throughout the world, which is the TRIPS waiver. Lori, could you give listeners a quick reminder about what the TRIPS waiver is and where it stands currently. And then Matthew, maybe you could talk a bit about the work being done. Now, to make the waiver a reality.

Lori Wallach 
You bet. I want to also just share with people COVAX, that's the agency that's supposed to take donations and dole them out. And what Matt Rose is pointing out is if you've got a shortage of doses, that kind of an agency, which is way short of even the modest goal of getting 20% of people in developing countries vaccinated just doesn't have the shots because they're just not available. So how do you change that dynamic? So more vaccines, treatments, diagnostic tests for COVID are being made worldwide. So that instead of having very high vaccination rates in a handful of rich countries and the rest of the world screwed, you actually get the whole world vaccinated, you get the whole world tested, you get everyone treated, you save lives, and you end the pandemic. How do you do that? And the thing that 150 countries want and have wanted since a year ago, October 2 of 2020, is a waiver of the WTO rules that require all the WTO countries to guarantee pharmaceutical corporations monopoly controls for many, many years of things like the COVID vaccines. So right now, under these WTO rules in the agreement on trade-related aspects of intellectual property, it's called TRIPS. every country around the world is supposed to let these handful of companies which use enormous billions of government money to create these vaccines control if and when they're made, where they're sold. As a result, shocker, the most effective vaccines, Pfizer, Moderna, are being only largely sold in the rich countries. And most people around the world have nothing. So this waiver of these WTO TRIPS monopoly requirements was proposed a year ago. In May, the Biden administration said they would support it, they have not exerted leadership to get it done. So here we are four months later, it's a total deadlock. And this is what's so disgusting. It's blocked by literally three countries, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland, with Germany leading the crew. If Germany stopped blocking with 150 other countries around the world have stood up and said, this is necessary to deal with this incredible inequity, we must take away the former monopoly so more can be made by everyone so everyone can get it and we're jammed right now. We've got two months before a big WTO summit that starts around Thanksgiving to actually get a final deal done. And it's only going to happen if the US President Biden stands up. But Biden's agenda for this US summit isn't to land the waiver deal or to otherwise force these monopolist Big Pharma companies to transfer the technology needed to make more doses. In fact, the big highlight is announcing they're going to give more us taxpayer money to monopolist Pfizer to buy hundreds of millions of more doses to donate. So instead of actually distributing production and control to people around the world, to control their own destiny, and make sure that for this pandemic, and for the next they have the ability to survive. Instead, we're gonna have taxpayer money going to have the monopolists have more profits to make some doses not enough and ship them around his charity.

Matthew Rose 
One of the most important things in a public health crisis is time, we have squandered over almost a year now, in not giving people what they want. And what they've asked for. This would not cost the United States any new money. This would not hurt the first-world countries who've used 70% of the doses that have been allocated to the world. what it would do is give everybody a fair shake to be able to make their own vaccines, make their own diagnostic tools, make their own treatments available in their countries. And we know that this is what's needed in this kind of emergency time. And we continue to, instead of moving something forward that 150 countries have asked for. We let just three countries, three countries who are well vaccinated, who have good control of the epidemic in their countries who don't have the economic wherewithal to weather lockdowns decide that the rest of the world who is feeling the crashing effects of this delta wave have no choice, no options here. And it's really a question of do we want to have as the United States, the moral authority to say, for the good of the world, we will do the right thing. And in May, it sounded like we were going to get there. But over months of negotiations, what have we gotten? We've gotten the Europeans floating a nonproposal, which essentially exists only to slow down the process, as again, their entire populations get vaccinated, while the people on the other side have to see the horrific things of what's happening in the US x100. Because they have no access to vaccines, there's no protection for them. And we continually sit in this spot of staring down each other when people needlessly die and suffer, because we don't want to exert the authority required to push the waiver through. We know that the US leadership is key on these issues. We know the US has rallied the world before and rallied with the world to fight large global health challenges. Every president in American history, since the Carter administration has had to deal with a global health crisis. We've always taken a central role and we've helped Marshal resources and done it in a productive way. For the most part. I have some quids and asterisk there, but we can get into that later. But we know that what leadership looks like from the US, it looks like our diplomats in Geneva using every trick in their playbook offering things carrots and sticks aligned to get people to move on these questions. And we're just not seeing that this time. And it's almost gobsmacking to see how we got stuck here.

Ryan 
And Matthew, speaking of time, Health GAP grew out of the fight to ensure that all people living with HIV, especially those in the poorest parts of the world have access to life-saving medicines. That was back in the late '90s. Can you talk a bit about what that fight looked like then how it played out over the years and how it ties into the current fight for the trips waiver and getting the word vaccinated against COVID-19?

Matthew Rose 

Absolutely. Health GAP history is born from that fight when we watched triple combination therapy, be accessible to the rich countries and not getting it to our colleagues around the world knowing that the suffering we were seeing here and the transformation that we got from those drugs could also be transformed there. And it's eerily similar in very disturbing ways about what's going on. One of the interesting things in the HIV fight in the 90s in the early aughts is that we got to people who you would never think to be on our side, to come across on our side on this issue. That being George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. I know, I know, you're shocked, too. But this proves that going through the WTO can work. Why because we got Cheney and Bush to rally the world together to have the Doha Declaration, which relax IP rights on antiretrovirals so that we could push them out around the world and has generic manufacturers be able to move into the market. And you saw a massive change in the lives saved from this meaningful work and engagement. And these were staunch, staunch neoconservative Republicans who love free trade above all else. But even they were willing to recognize that trade-related barriers, had a ceiling that had a threshold that they shouldn't cross. And if that if they did cross that something, government had to step up and act. And it's wild to think that we worked with Cheney and Bush to get this done to unlock the blockages and allow this flow. Now was this flowing perfectly everything we wanted? No. But you know, that's what you get when you play with Republicans sometimes. However, it did unblock a number of things that allow us to truly set up an infrastructure that continues to allow new products coming from developed markets into the rest of the world. So you can see, you know, now we're still paying crazy drug prices in the United States because we pay crazy these drug prices in the United States. But you can have the generic version of the exact same drug available in a much more affordable manner to people in developing countries who need that drug. And this was a game-changer because it really allowed us to get treatment where it needed to be. Now, one of the places that pharma got to benefit was that it meant that there was a conference supply of people who needed drugs and had drugs paid for, and we had to create a mechanism to pay for that drug. And, you know, the generic companies at least got to have some of that cash. So pharma still gets to benefit and even in the world now, if the waivers are removed, they still get a little bit of money. It's not a whole free for all sale. But it does change the balance of power. And it allows people to make their own drug in-country and sell it to themselves at rates that they can actually afford, rather than what the United States might pay or you know, say Germany can afford to pay. Furthermore, as we watch this kind of global vaccine hunt happen, we can see that things that we've done in the HIV fight, have taught us that how to make these things work and happen. But it's a matter of do we have the political will to get there? And that's where we've been stuck is can we rally the will of the people to do what we did to do what the republicans did, it's still so strange to say, back in the early 2000s and realizing that you can indeed help people to save themselves. And that I think, was empowering, we basically created a generic market scheme by allowing this to go through. And this spurred innovation and spurred development in India, making them kind of the biological place of the world. So you can see what countries are able to do. Bangladesh is able to do places that can really do something once these barriers are removed, and that the investments that they make in those can have spillover effects for other things and other options. But you've got to get through the big block, that is the waiver and getting people on board with understanding that we can go big because we've done it before. And all your arguments about collapsing the pharmaceutical system are all empirically denied, because there's still a thriving pharmaceutical system in the world, even though people with HIV can now get medication.

Ryan 
I think we'll end it on the note of rallying the world like you just mentioned, Matthew, Lori, maybe you could talk about what listeners can do right now to help when the TRIPS waiver and then the pandemic and then Matthew, maybe you could just tell folks listening how they can support the work Health GAP is doing both in regards to the waiver and the other important areas that you focus on.

Lori Wallach 
The most important thing is to build pressure on the White House to take action to end the pandemic. This is not a technical problem. This is a power problem. We need to elevate our demands for a TRIPS waiver for technology transfer and for funding for global production to get everyone the vaccines they need to end the pandemic. There are two easy things everyone can do right now, go to tradewatch.org, top left corner, you will see a box about this crisis, click, you will see an action alert, sign the petition and then pass it on to your friends and family. Number two, it really matters to call your members of Congress at 202-224-3121. You can call the US Capitol. You just give me your zip code, they will send you to your House member have your house member transferred to your senators, ask your House representative and your two senators to talk to the White House, particularly Jeff Zeints and get a letter written back to you about what they say about what they're going to do to deliver the TRIPS waiver

Matthew Rose 
Ditto all the things Lori said it's super important that we raise the pressure and we make this White House realize that the American voters realize what is being done in their name and decide what we're willing to stand for. We can demand that our government actually shift power and create an equitable way to distribute and help support vaccines getting around the world. We can actually think about how to end this pandemic. The plans are out there. The data is out there. The information is out there. It is a matter of political will. And the best way to rally will is to talk to your friends, your family, your co-workers. Share, share, share share. There will be so much information about the waiver for the next couple of weeks and about what we're doing follow Global Trade Watch, follow Health GAP on Twitter. Go to our website to healthgap.org. We are working hard to continuously pump out new materials and resources that help explain what's going on and what's happening in the fight. But this coming summit will help set the stage for what the world does going forward. We can either decide to let a mediocre, lukewarm, boring agenda continue to drive things where we sit and stare at each other across the room and twiddle our thumbs. Or we can act with the urgency and the swiftness that is required to end a pandemic that has encased our lives for over a year and a half to actually provide and support with the rest of the world, 150 countries has asked of us and to truly transform society in ways that recognize justice, dignity and equity. This is our moment. This is a moment in a world where you might not thought it was gonna come. But here now you can make it happen. Fight to support the waiver, fight for vaccine equity and fight to end the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ryan 
Rethinking Trade is produced by Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch. To learn more you can visit rethinktrade.org. You can also visit tradewatch.org. Stay tuned for more and thank you for listening.

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Delta Variant Shows, Unless Biden Administration Starts Leading Global COVID Vaccine Effort, Pandemic Will Never End

[Reposted from PC News]

By Mike Keeley

The delta variant-fueled COVID-19 wave that is slamming communities nationwide and flooding ICUs is a glimpse of the endless pandemic to come unless the Biden administration secures a waiver to significantly boost production of vaccines, tests, and treatments; requires firms to share vaccine recipes; and helps to fund a major increase in COVID-19 medicine production worldwide.

A recent report by Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch (GTW) debunked Big Pharma claims that drug corporations’ current vaccine production plan would quickly satisfy global demand. Nine months into 2021, current vaccine producers have delivered only five billion doses of the 12 billion they promised to make this year, while 14-15 billion doses were needed before rich countries started booster shots.

Less than 3% of people in low-income countries have had at least one dose, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), and those countries may wait until 2024 for mass immunization, if it happens at all, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.

This scarcity is not only unjust and guarantees needless deaths and economic pain, but increases the chances of vaccine-resistant variants emerging that put the whole world back to square one on immunization.

The global shortage of vaccines can be traced to monopolies that empower a few vaccine makers to control if, how much, and where vaccine doses are produced. The World Trade Organization (WTO) requires 159 countries to enforce patent and other so-called intellectual property barriers to greater medicine production.

Regular Public Citizen News readers will recall that the Biden administration made history in May when it reversed the Trump administration’s position and supported temporarily waiving the WTO pharmaceutical monopoly terms to save lives amidst the COVID-19 crisis. American support for the “TRIPS Waiver” greatly elevated the issue and influenced some allies to follow suit.

However, since then little progress has been made thanks to a handful of wealthy countries opposing the waiver, especially Germany and the European Union on its behalf.

Following the U.S. announcement of support, GTW joined with a coalition of U.S. and international civil society organizations to pressure German Chancellor Angela Merkel to stop blocking the more than 130 countries that want the waiver. As Merkel traveled to Washington, D.C., in July for her final White House visit, she was met with dozens of protests organized by Public Citizen, Citizens Trade Campaign (CTC), and allied organizations focused on more than a dozen German consulates nationwide.

20210715_Merkel_Die_In_0116

Protesters arranged body bags outside the White House during a protest calling on German Chancellor Angela Merkel to stop blocking an emergency waiver of intellectual property rules needed to increase global production of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments that would help save millions of lives Thursday, July 15, 2021 in Washington. The action in support of the “TRIPS waiver” was one of more than a dozen demonstrations in the U.S. capitol and at German consulates across the nation timed with Merkel’s visit to the United States this Thursday. While President Biden and a majority of the world’s governments support a TRIPS waiver, Germany continues to obstruct it. (Eric Kayne/AP Images for Citizen Trade Campaign)

The Chancellor was directly challenged by GTW protestors—including one inside a large Merkel puppet—as she arrived for an honorary degree at Johns Hopkins that students petitioned against, given her opposition to the waiver. CTC, GTW, and allies mobilized a huge banner on helium balloons depicting the White House in the background. Body bags were also laid outside the White House the day of the Biden-Merkel meeting, generating more press. Heads of major U.S. organizations wrote to Biden and spoke at a press conference organized by GTW to publicly urge him to exert U.S. leadership at the summit and resolve the German opposition.

Public pressure put the TRIPS waiver on the agenda for the summit, but Biden apparently did not expend the political capital necessary to convince the Chancellor to move. Nor has the administration exhibited the leadership at the WTO. 

Waiver proponents had called for progress by the end of July, but with none in sight, the WTO disbanded for a six-week vacation against the WTO Director-General’s guidance. “The WTO is showing itself to not just be useless in the fight against COVID, but an actual hindrance,” said GTW Director Lori Wallach. “The WTO’s shameful inaction on the COVID waiver could be the final undoing of an organization that already was suffering a major legitimacy crisis and on its last legs.”

According to Oxford University, more than 3.3 million people worldwide have died from COVID-19 since India and South Africa first proposed the WTO waiver in October 2020. Meanwhile, White House coronavirus czar Jeff Zients appears to have no plan to end the pandemic. GTW and almost 30 partner organizations – including Be A Hero, Amnesty International USA, and Avaaz – are joining forces in a petition to Zients demanding that he:

  • Actively cooperate with waiver proponent-nations to produce a draft WTO TRIPS waiver text and use all means to press the European Union and others to end their opposition;
  • Leverage the U.S. government’s past public investments and all legal authorities to make vaccine firms transfer technology; and
  • Launch and fund a global manufacturing plan to increase and democratize vaccine production in hubs worldwide.

Biden is reportedly planning a COVID-19 summit in conjunction with the United Nations General Assembly in September. According to Wallach, “President Biden’s global COVID summit will only be a success if he uses it to exert global leadership to get the WTO TRIPS waiver done and secure commitments from other countries to help fund the necessary scale-up in developing countries’ production of COVID vaccines to end the pandemic.” More than 130 countries support the WTO waiver, and opponents are facing increasing political pressure and moral outrage. Chancellor Merkel’s upcoming retirement creates opportunities for our German allies to end their country’s obstruction of the waiver and thus end the EU’s opposition. But while there is hope, there is also peril. All eyes are now on the Nov. 30 WTO ministerial, a date far beyond when a waiver should have been enacted. And Big Pharma and other interests are pushing to transform a meaningful waiver into a meaningless WTO political declaration.

Public Citizen will keep up the pressure to force the Biden administration to show leadership and secure a comprehensive waiver as fast as possible to end the pandemic.

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Tuesday Press Conference: MoCs, Civil Society and Labor Leaders Urge Biden To Launch Global Plan to End Pandemic at Next Week’s UN Summit

For Immediate Release: Sept. 9, 2021
Contact: Derrick Robinson, drobinson@citizen.org

MEDIA ADVISORY

 South African Government Official Will Provide Update on WTO Vaccine Waiver as Delta Variant Devastation Foreshadows Devastation of Endless Pandemic 

WHAT: Ahead of the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) heads of state summit, Member of the U.S. Congress and heads of labor, faith and health organizations will spotlight in a Public Citizen Zoom press conference why President Joe Biden’s leadership is essential to ending the pandemic.

In the months since Biden’s historic support for a waiver of World Trade Organization (WTO) monopoly barriers to greater COVID vaccine production, little progress has been made. And White House COVID Czar Jeffrey Zients has yet to unveil a global plan as the Delta variant detected in India where vaccines are scarce is now raging worldwide. UNGA and Biden’s  global COVID-19 summit will be successful if the president uses them to get the WTO waiver done, require vaccine recipes be shared via  broad tech transfer to speed expansion of COVID medicine supplies, and move funding for much expanded global production.

WHO: U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) 

U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.)

Zane Dangor, Republic of South Africa, Special Advisor to the Foreign Minister           

Dr. Joia Mukherjee MD, MPH, Partners In Health, Chief Medical Officer

Father Charles Chilufya SJ, Jesuit Representative for Africa and Madagascar

Sara Nelson, AFA-CWA, President

Moderated by Lori Wallach, Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch

WHEN: Tuesday, Sept. 14 at 9:30 am EST [GMT-4]

HOW: Press can register here.

BACKGROUND: On May 5, people around the globe cheered when President Biden announced the U.S. would support a temporary waiver of WTO intellectual property barriers to boost production of the COVID-19 vaccines needed to save lives and end the pandemic. But months later, Big Pharma monopolies remain, now exacerbated by even higher vaccine prices. Current production capacity cannot supply enough COVID-19 vaccines for the world. The poorest countries may wait until 2024 for mass immunization, if it happens at all, per the Economist Intelligence Unit. To date, 75% of vaccines have been administered in just 10 countries, and only 1% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose, according to World Health Organization statistics.

The U.N. Global Assembly of world leaders comes at a time when the critical shortfall of vaccines, diagnostics and treatments in low- and middle-income nations is enabling more deadly and possibly vaccine-resistant variants to develop and spread domestically and abroad. The delta variant first detected overseas is burning through the U.S., and scientists warn of even deadlier variants as the pandemic drags on. Unless the UNGA results in significant breakthroughs to the WTO waiver, tech transfer and global production funding that ensure that people worldwide can access vaccines and treatments, there can be no end to the public health or economic crises anywhere.

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Rethinking Trade - Season 1 Episode 38: Labor Day Special: An Historic Vote in a Mexican Auto Plant

On August 19th, workers at the massive General Motors plant in Silao, Mexico participated in an historic vote that ousted the corrupt and undemocratic protection union that had long controlled labor relations there. The effort to win such a vote was made possible by the labor rules and Rapid Response enforcement mechanism of the USMCA trade deal.

In this Labor Day special, we sit down with Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch Research Director Daniel Rangel and long-time labor organizer Jeff Hermanson, who has been supporting the General Motors campaign through the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center. We discuss the situation at Silao, its significance in the context of trade policy and what it says about the prospect for workers to utilize the USMCA to fight for labor rights in North America.

Music: Groove Grove by Kevin MacLeod.

Link: https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3831-groove-grove.

License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Transcribed by Sally King

Ryan 
Welcome back to Rethinking Trade where we don't just talk about trade policy, we fight to change it. I'm Ryan and I'm joined once again by our in-house trade expert, Lori Wallach. It's Labor Day we're doing a Labor Day special episode about a quite historic union vote at a General Motors plant in Silao, Mexico. Joining Lori and I is Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch Research Director Daniel Rangel. As well as Jeff Hermanson, former Mexico director of the Solidarity Center and a longtime labor organizer. Jeff has been pretty involved in supporting the efforts at the General Motors plant in Silao. Jeff, why don't you just start by telling us what just happened at the Silao plant. And then we're going to talk about how significant this is for the Mexican labor movement but also for the prospects of the revised NAFTA, the USMCA's labor protections, and enforcement mechanisms.

Jeff Hermanson 
The General Motors plant employs 6,400 workers. They have a collective bargaining agreement that's known as a protection contract with the CTM (Confederation of Mexican Workers), the largest union in Mexico. And under the labor law reform in Mexico and the USMCA, every contract has to be legitimated by a secret ballot vote of the workers for the first time. And the workers voted it down. And that's a big deal.

Lori Wallach 
There was a really exciting development, one that involves a lot of different streams of organizing and policy change. One, I think the key thing was the Rapid Response Mechanism (RRM) of the revised North American Free Trade Agreement, which is officially called the US Mexico Canada agreement, the USMCA. That agreement going into place required the labor law changes, Jeff, that you mentioned in Mexico and also created this mechanism, Rapid Response Mechanism that for the first time allows company-specific cases to be filed to directly enforce against an individual company, the new labor rights that were required, basic core ones right to organize rights in the revised NAFTA. And there's a lot riding on whether or not that mechanism can work. It definitely is an important new tool. And at the same time, it's, you know, first trial runs. So the US government under US Trade Representative Katherine Tai self-filed one of these rapid response cases against GM, with respect to the outrageous basically malfeasance that occurred during the first effort to have a vote on this contract. I'm wondering, Jeff, if you could explain to us a little bit of the context of this, because, you know, folks are probably not that familiar with the idea of a protection contract. And also, the obligation under the new NAFTA is that every one of these old contracts, a lot of them, which were really, you know, protecting the boss, not protecting labor rights have to be revoted. And so this came to a head in the context of that process. And I'm gonna ask you, Jeff, to take it away and give us some context of how we got to this and why this is so important.

Jeff Hermanson 
So in Mexico, there are very few non-union workplaces. But 90% of the contracts are considered protection contracts, that means that they're put in place by the employer and an union before workers are hired in many cases, without worker knowledge in many cases. But even if there is some worker knowledge as there is in the General Motors situation for the purpose is to protect the employer from any legitimate union representation. And in this case, for example, for the 12 years that this union held this contract, there was not a single assembly, not a single vote on leadership, not a single ratification of contracts, and very little help from the union on any individual grievances. So because every one of these contracts is now going to have to be voted by the first of May, 2023. Because of the importance of the plant the size of the plant. The eyes of the Mexican government and the US government were on this vote. And in April when the first vote was held, it was a two-day vote. The first day of the vote went forward, the ballots boxes were put in the union office for safekeeping, supposedly, but when they came the next day to start the second day of voting, they found that the ballot boxes had been broken into, and ballots destroyed. And they had done a count of the vote up to the end of the first day. And the vote was leaning towards rejecting the contract, 45 to 55. A surprise to everyone. The workers and the secret ballot had voted this contract down, however, because of the irregularities, as they're called the Secretary of Labor suspended the second day of voting did an investigation, and issued a finding that yes, serious irregularities had occurred. The same day that finding came out, the US Trade Representative filed a complaint under the terms of the labor chapter of the USMCA calling upon the Mexican government to take steps to remedy the situation. Labor Secretary in Mexico ordered a second vote, which was supposed to take place within 30 days of her order, the 30 days came and went, the CTM just didn't run the election. And so then an agreement was reached between the US Trade Representative and the Mexican Secretary of Labor, that a rerun election had to be held by August 20. And if it wasn't held, the contract would be invalidated. So that puts some real sanctions into the agreement. And it also required observers. And the bottom line is when they voted again, they voted the same way: 45% Yes / 55% No. And they rejected the contract.

Daniel Rangel 
Thank you, Jeff, for chairing this. I think that what our listeners are wondering now is what will come next? What's the process for workers to get through in your representation at GM- Silao.

Jeff Hermanson 
So now we're in a situation where this contract will be invalidated. I mean, there's a period in which the CTM can object to the election. And throughout that period, the contract stays in effect, we hope that that 20 day period will result in the contract being eliminated. And the workers then have the opportunity to form their own union, they've already applied for the registration and gotten registration of an independent union. And now they're campaigning to get enough support to apply to negotiate a contract.

Lori Wallach 
So what do you think was the relevance of the Rapid Response complaint for the outcome because this is like a pretty stunning outcome after decades of workers getting screwed by protection unions in Mexico was a brave thing to vote the way they did the fact that the vote actually got redone in a fair way, as you know, knockdown, drag-out stunning, given the context. Does the USMCA and the USTR self-initiated case had anything to do with that? Or is it all about internal organizing, which I know we want to hear about the amazing work that the workers did also to represent themselves? But was the RRM part of the story?

Jeff Hermanson 
Absolutely, this second vote probably never would have occurred without that complaint, because as I said, the Secretary of Labor ordered to election rerun in 30 days, and the union just didn't do it. They said, "No, we don't have to do it, we have until the first of May of 2023 to do it." Without that complaint, the second rerun probably wouldn't have occurred.

Lori Wallach 
You figured they were thinking about the sanctions and the RRM, that we're going to hit the company and the government was going to look bad, and they were all seeing that chewing on their ankles?

Jeff Hermanson 
The government in Mexico really does not want sanctions to be applied. They do not want, you know, investors to see that sanctions could be applied to them. So basically, they were ready to do just about anything that the USTR asked to get past this complaint. And what they did was order a rerun election under conditions in which the workers could vote freely, secretly, without coercion, and vote their conscience. And that's what they did. You know, and it really is an amazing testimony to the courage of these workers. Because in the past, this never would have happened in the past the CTM would have brought in, you know, 100 thugs to intimidate the workers. I mean, we've seen this so many times, there would have been no secret ballot, you know, it would have been an open vote in front of everybody. And, you know, I never would have happened. So this is a turning point in the history of the Mexican labor movement, in my opinion.

Daniel Rangel 
This case appeared on the radar of many people with these outrageous episodes of the representatives destroying to ballots of the workers that were voting no against the contract. But this fight and struggle of many workers started many years ago, right? Could you give us a little bit of the background of what was going on in that plant? And what were the main drivers for workers at the GM-Silao plant to both know for this contract?

Jeff Hermanson 
I think you know that it's true that there has been dissent within this company for years, but dissent that was repressed, the dissent that resulted in workers being fired dissent that really, you know, could not come into the open without retaliation from the company. And so as a result, the main voice of the workers was a group of fired workers, eight fired workers formed a group called Generando Movimiento (generating movement) using the initials GM, you know, they were a presence on social media, they were a presence with their personal connections to folks in the plant. And it's quite obvious that they had some real impact because we've seen other legitimation votes recently in auto plants that were one-sided in favor of the Union. Because there was no such movement in the plant because workers were intimidated. In this case, we saw the CTM, holding captive audience meetings with the help of the company, before the first vote, in which they were telling workers that if they voted the contract down, they'd lose their benefits, which is a lie. We saw threats and intimidation of workers, we saw the idea floated that if the yes vote won, that they would raffle off 10 brand-new GM vehicles, of course, workers know in Mexico that a lot of promises are made in election campaigns that are never fulfilled, and this is one of them. But you know, it was a situation in which the workers themselves had built enough of a support network in that plant that people felt safe to vote their conscience. And that's really an amazing thing.

Daniel Rangel 
Before you finish. Let me ask you this, how was this news and this historic vote received? And how is this gonna change the landscape for the relationships between employers and workers in Mexico?

Jeff Hermanson 
I expect this sends a message to employers and unions, you know, it received tremendous press coverage in Mexico. This was one of the top stories for a few days after the vote. And there are employers right now thinking, "What am I going to do when my contract is up for a vote?" In many of these cases, the workers don't even know there's a contract. So we think that a lot of these contracts will fade into history, when the deadline, first of May 2023 rolls around, most of these contracts will not have been legitimated and they will no longer be in force. Those that are voted on, we're going to see, we're going to see more defeats of protection contracts.

Daniel Rangel 
And why are you so certain that workers are going to vote down these contracts?

Jeff Hermanson 
You know, these contracts are protection contracts for a reason. And the reason is to keep wages low. And wages in the General Motors plant are half what the wages are in the Volkswagen plant in Pueblo where they have had an independent union, negotiating real wage increases for the past 25 years. And you know, the differences are very obvious. There are three independent unions in the assembly plants in Mexico, one in Volkswagen, one in Nissan, and one in Audi. And all three of them have at least 1/3 higher wages than in the GM plant. And some of them have double the wages. That's a big deal. It's a big difference. People can see that. Workers are fed up. They were fed up with the CTM in this plant, they're fed up with protection contracts in many plants throughout Mexico.

Lori Wallach 
Well, that begs the next and sort of final question, which is what needs to happen now for actually the workers at the Silau plant to get an independent union? They still have to get a new union. And GM has to recognize that new union and then they need a new collective bargaining agreement. So are there challenges between saying no to the old and getting the new that could actually change worker's lives? What are the prospects there?

Jeff Hermanson 
There definitely are challenges. Other protection unions are circling around the GM plant and talking about how they're going to represent these workers. But the workers themselves have formed an independent union, national independent union of workers of the auto industry. They have received their registration papers from the federal authorities and they are seeking right now to sign up, you know, they have to sign up 30% of the workers in order to demand collective bargaining, we expect there will be real competition for support. I mean, we can't forget that the CTM did get 45% of the vote, we expect that they will try to negotiate a new contract. If the independent union gets a 30% signup, there'll be an election between any union that can provide a 30% showing of interest, essentially, they'll be on the ballot. So we might see a competitive election between an independent union and the CTM union or another protection union.

Lori Wallach 
And the very fact they have the opportunity to have that vote and have an independent union challenging the corrupt CTM protection union is a pretty amazing development. Dear listeners, to put this in perspective, this is historic. And I think the thing thinking forward about these challenges and all is for all of us to think about what work we need to do as activists, as organizers, as policymakers listening to this interview to actually translate this opportunity, these instruments into the reality that workers throughout North America have been fighting for together since the NAFTA itself was hatched in the early 90s, to actually have a mechanism for workers to improve their lot and the transnational companies have been playing workers off of each other, taking their high wage union jobs in the US to Mexico to pay people $2-3 an hour, making sure there are no real unions. How do we translate this opportunity, this moment through action through the RRM cases through solidarity into real change? And that is what is before us. And Jeff, I don't know if you have some specific ideas about that?

Jeff Hermanson 
You know, the recommendation of the Independent Mexico Labor Experts Board has been for massive funding of US and Mexican union binational organizing efforts. I'm very much in favor of such a program. I mean, this is what needs to happen. We need to train a generation of professional trade union organizers. We need to help them create industrial unions that are independent of government and employers that are democratic, and that actually represent the interests of workers. And that can be done with the cooperation of US, Canadian and Mexican unions, this is possible now for the first time in my career. I see this as a real possibility.

Ryan 
Rethinking Trade is produced by Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch. To learn more you can visit rethinktrade.org. You can also visit tradewatch.org. Stay tuned for more and thank you for listening.

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