On the Frontier of Inclusive, Worker-Centered Trade Policy: The Northern Rockies

By: Victor Ban, Beth Baltzan, and Jamila Thompson

To help build modern trade policy that focuses on workers, their local communities, and the small businesses that sustain them, USTR officials recently traveled to the Northern Rockies. In continuing to meet people where they are, we visited Rock Springs, Wyoming; Billings, Montana; Helena, Montana; and Boise, Idaho, and met with numerous labor unions and the Native American Development Corporation.  We also learned about the important work of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis’ Center for Indian Country Development.

In discussing Indigenous economic development and worker opportunities, we were reminded of the rich history, legacy, and traditions of long-established trade routes for Indigenous peoples.  Native communities, including those in the Northern Rockies, strive to market their goods globally and need support in promoting and protecting authentic Indigenous goods and services.  They underscored the importance of lifting up products that are made by “inspired Natives,” not “Native-inspired,” and of assessing potential policy impacts on Indigenous workers, whether they live on or off Tribal lands, including through disaggregated, data-driven analysis.

With a reputation for agricultural production, the Northern Rockies also has a long, interconnected history of industrialization.  In particular, we witnessed how agriculture can create jobs in adjacent manufacturing sectors, as exhibited by unionized workers in the beet sugar processing industry. This type of economic diversification has not occurred everywhere. For example, Montanan workers expressed concerns about the extraction of natural resources in the state, as downstream production often occurs elsewhere, depriving Montanans of good paying jobs.  Many workers want to participate in the supply chain further downstream and need policies and investments that promote decent work, good-paying jobs, and sustainable, safe communities. 

The people we met in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho have unique and shared experiences.  Across all three states, workers expressed pride in U.S. leadership in clean technology and their concern for protecting the environment.  When it comes to trade, they emphasized that the playing field is not level.  Workers have to compete with substandard labor regimes abroad – affecting wages, benefits, and workplace safety – and lax environmental regulation.  Many conversations centered on raising awareness about enforcing U.S. worker protections at home and abroad, and on maximizing enforcement tools, especially those under the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) that address the problem of the unlevel playing field.

Supply chain complications were a repeated concern. Outsized reliance on parts imported from afar caused cascading problems when those parts were “stuck in the middle of the ocean for months.”  Workers also expressed frustration that, since the onset of the pandemic, sellers of many goods seemed able to raise prices well above the increased costs of inputs – while blaming labor costs.

Another common theme was the support for the Administration’s commitment to inclusive, worker-centered trade policy and the need for new tools to correct for unfair competition and supply chain dependencies.  Workers were also disillusioned with conglomerates that use trade to harm unionization efforts, while exploiting tax loopholes. They also noted how the “de minimis” allowance in our import laws disadvantages good-paying union jobs, and we had candid discussions about automation, technology, artificial intelligence and the future of work.  

We discussed the Administration’s goals of growing the economy from the middle out and bottom up, promoting goods made here in America, and ensuring that trade policy dovetails with domestic economic priorities. More generally, workers cited the importance of project labor agreements, prevailing wages, and training.  As one worker noted, “I don’t want a job – I want a career.”

Workers conveyed pride in their careers and in maintaining good jobs with benefits, and retirement with dignity.  They shared the consequences to their communities of unfair trade practices.  They value their sense of place; when factories and businesses close, the tax base suffers – affecting schools, libraries, and other public services. In many rural communities, many of these workers are also fire fighters, mayors, school board members, and farmers.  Once gone, jobs are hard to replace; the fabric of society is destroyed, and relocation comes at the cost of family- and community-based support systems. 

We are grateful to all whom we met for sharing their expertise and wisdom informed by the impact of policy on their lived experience.  These communities deserve economic policy that advances their security, well-being, and ability to thrive in today’s economy.