At an unprecedented roundtable with union leaders stung by NAFTA and other trade deals the past three decades, Secretary of State Antony Blinken pledged that new trade pacts and related foreign policy will help, not harm, American workers.
Antony Blinken’s conversation with labor leaders at Pittsburgh Local 5 is believed to be the first time a union has hosted a sitting secretary of state, another sign of the Biden administration’s pro-union agenda.
Blinken made the remarks at Pittsburgh Local 5, a visit that was unique among the many trips Cabinet members, Vice President Kamala Harris and even President Biden have made to IBEW and other union locals this year.
But until Sept. 30, no union had hosted a sitting secretary of state, certainly not for a freewheeling conversation on labor issues.
“Our domestic competitiveness, our national security, and a thriving middle class are mutually reinforcing,” Blinken said in his opening remarks. “We want to make sure that we’re engaged in an innovation economy that delivers for workers across the country.”
He spoke with a group that included Local 5 Business Manager Mike Dunleavy and representatives from the Steelworkers, Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers, Communications Workers of America, Service Employees International, the Allegheny-Fayette Central Labor Council and Pennsylvania AFL-CIO.
Blinken arrived at Local 5’s sprawling hall and training center after a day and a half of international meetings in Pittsburgh with the administration’s newly created Trade and Technology Council.
“The issues we’re taking on through this council are critical to our economy, to our competitiveness, and to our workers’ livelihoods, now and well into the future,” he said. “We believe strongly—the president believes strongly—that labor groups have to be our partner in policy, that includes foreign policy.”
Toward that end, he threw the question to the floor: What should the State Department be doing?
“How do we make sure that our diplomacy is working on behalf of America’s workers?” he asked. “That’s what I want to focus on.”
That was Dunleavy’s cue, and he went straight to the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement.
“I got to lead off with the first question, and it was about how severely we were affected here by NAFTA,” he said. “We had 8,000 working electricians and that went down to 4,000 after NAFTA.
“I told him, ‘If you’re speaking to the Europeans about any kind of trade deals, there have to be worker protections.”
Blinken agreed without reservation, and in his prepared remarks earlier, recalled talking with AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka and the Executive Board about those issues not long before Trumka’s sudden death in August.
“He cared deeply not just about labor rights in the United States but worldwide, which was the focus of our conversation, and also about how what we do around the world has an impact here at home on American workers — something he wanted to make sure we were keeping front and center in our minds as we went about doing the work of the State Department,” Blinken said.
In paying homage to Trumka, he said he looks forward to working with his successor, the IBEW’s own Liz Shuler. A member of Portland, Ore., Local 125, Shuler served alongside Trumka for three terms as AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer and is now president, the first woman to lead the federation.
Shuler applauded Blinken’s roundtable: “Great to see the Administration's commitment to listening to working people & recognizing their role in shaping the policies of the future,” she wrote on Twitter.
Dunleavy has met this year with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, and in June his local hosted Vice President Harris and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh for a roundtable with a cross section of union organizers.
“With this administration, the outreach to labor is like nothing I’ve ever seen,” Dunleavy said.
But he was still surprised when he got a call from the regional AFL-CIO saying the State Department had a special request.
“The secretary of state asked to hold a roundtable discussion on labor while he was in town,” he said. “We’re the prime player here when anything like that comes up. Our facility lends itself to it.”
Reflecting on the event a week later, he said, “It was one of those days when I went home and I couldn’t believe it was me in the conversation. Then you realize that that’s why they came, they want to know what we’re experiencing.
“This wasn’t a dog-and-pony show. They were truly asking each of us what we thought about ways that foreign policy could help American workers.”