Bernie Sanders on Trade and U.S. Jobs

“Our trade deals were written by large multinational corporations for multinational corporations. Trade is a good thing. But we need a trade policy that works for working families, not just large corporations. – Bernie April 15, 2019 

Bernie Sanders believes that the top priority of any trade deal should be to help American workers. Unfortunately, as Bernie has warned year after year, American trade policy over the last 30 years has done just the opposite.  Multinational corporations – who have helped to write most of these trade deals – have benefited greatly while millions of American jobs have been shipped overseas.

Keeping Jobs in the U.S.: American trade policy should place the needs of American workers and small businesses first.

NAFTA: Bernie’s strong opposition to destructive “free trade” deals began with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993.

Trade with China: As with NAFTA, Bernie warned in 2000 that Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) with China would help multinational corporations at the expense of workers and the environment.

Trans-Pacific Partnership: The TPP follows in the footsteps of the previous pro-corporate trade deals. It lacks safeguards to protect American jobs and the environment while giving massive benefits to large multinational corporations.

Keeping Jobs in the U.S.

“I am proud to be the only candidate running for president who not only voted against NAFTA and PNTR with China, but also stood on the picket lines with union workers opposing these unfair trade deals.” – Bernie April 30, 2019

Bernie has been a leader in Congress in the fight against unfair free trade agreements. In his view, these trade deals favor large corporations at the expense of workers and environmental regulation. Too often implementation of these unfair free trade agreements has resulted in massive amounts of decent paying middle class jobs being shipped overseas and the closing of tens of thousands of factories across the U.S.

What is a free trade agreement?

Free trade agreements are pacts between countries that are designed to reduce trade barriers such as tariffs and trade quotas, to increase exports and imports, and to increase consumer access to lower-priced goods.  Free trade is not the same thing as Fair trade. Free Trade focuses on reducing trade barriers while Fair trade, which is what Bernie supports, focuses on workers and working conditions. 

Why is Bernie against most trade agreements?

He believes that free trade agreements like NAFTA, Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China, and the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement have allowed too many American jobs to move overseas.

In an op-ed in the Huffington Post in May 2015, Bernie explained:

“Since 2001, nearly 60,000 manufacturing plants in this country have been shut down and we have lost over 4.7 million decent paying manufacturing jobs. NAFTA has led to the loss of nearly 700,000 jobs. PNTR with China has led to the loss of 2.7 million jobs. Our trade agreement with South Korea has led to the loss of about 75,000 jobs. While bad trade agreements are not the only reason why manufacturing jobs in the U.S. have declined, they are an important factor.”

Is it true that these trade deals have cost American jobs? Where’s the evidence?

Yes. Here is a study from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) showing that NAFTA cost nearly 700,000 American jobs. While supporters of NAFTA will point to studies like this one from the Congressional Research Service which found that the net effect on the U.S. economy was smaller, this same study cites the aforementioned EPI study, explaining that “there are both winners and losers from [trade] adjustments.”

This is exactly Bernie’s point – these trade deals may have benefits for the GDP, but most of the benefits go to large businesses at the expense of American workers. As he said in 1993 on the House floor before voting against it, “NAFTA may be a good deal for the people who own our corporations, but it is a bad deal for American workers, for our family farmers, and it is bad for the environment.”

And Bernie is nothing if not consistent. Here he is over 20 years later warning against the Trans-Pacific Partnership:

“Let’s be clear: the TPP is much more than a “free trade” agreement. It is part of a global race to the bottom to boost the profits of large corporations and Wall Street by outsourcing jobs; undercutting worker rights; dismantling labor, environmental, health, food safety and financial laws; and allowing corporations to challenge our laws in international tribunals rather than our own court system.”

What effect do these trade agreements have on unions and US workers?

Previous trade deals and the loss of manufacturing jobs has had disastrous consequences for American workers. NAFTA, CAFTA, PNTR with China, and other trade agreements have resulted in millions of manufacturing jobs being shipped overseas to China, Mexico, and other nations. 

Bernie believes that free trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR to China, and the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement are unfair and unbalanced because they fail to protect workers and have allowed too many American jobs to move overseas. He introduced legislation in 2005 to withdraw from the World Trade Organization (WTO).

In a May 2019 op-ed. Bernie wrote:

“Since 2001, nearly 60,000 manufacturing plants in this country have been shut down and we have lost over 4.7 million decent paying manufacturing jobs. NAFTA has led to the loss of nearly 700,000 jobs. PNTR with China has led to the loss of 2.7 million jobs. Our trade agreement with South Korea has led to the loss of about 75,000 jobs. While bad trade agreements are not the only reason why manufacturing jobs in the U.S. have declined, they are an important factor.”

Besides causing massive job losses, these unfair trade agreements do not enforce food, health, and safety regulations; environmental laws; child labor laws, and most significantly, labor regulations that protect the rights of workers to unionize.  Strikes are suppressed in the outsourced countries and efforts to unionize are met with violence, repression, and harsh measures against employees. And here in the US, workers in unionized workplaces have no recourse as factories close and can do nothing but simply watch as jobs disappear, sometimes even being forced to train their replacements.

Bernie explained in a speech at Westminster College that as we “take into account the outrageous income and wealth inequality that exists globally and in our own country.” Doing so “recognizes that our safety and welfare is bound up with the safety and welfare of others around the world”.


Bernie believes that a strong disincentive that would stop companies from relocating is to negotiate trade agreements that not only protect the wage of U.S. workers wages but also promote better wages for the workers who create the products we import.

Are there more Trade Agreements being negotiated?

No, and Yes. The current administration is not focused on creating new trade agreements. There are, however, several large free trade agreements the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Trade in Services Agreement (TISA), and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) that had a lot of support in the past and could move forward in the future. 

Other than opposing free trade agreements, how does Bernie plan to keep jobs in the U.S.?

Bernie has introduced the Rebuild America Act to the Senate which would create over 13 million good-paying jobs by investing $1 trillion in our crumbling infrastructure. It would be paid for by closing corporate income tax loopholes and overseas tax havens. See our Infrastructure page for more information.

In 2019, Bernie announced his plan for a federal jobs guarantee program that would millions of Americans to work at a good paying, stable job.

Find out more about Bernie’s plans for creating American jobs on our Economy and Jobs page.


The North American Fair Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is a trilateral trade agreement between Canada, the United States, and Mexico. The law’s purpose was to eliminate barriers to trade and investment between the three countries, mainly by reducing and eliminating tariffs (taxes on imported products). It was signed into law in 1993 and went into effect the following year.

Bernie predicted that NAFTA would eliminate jobs in the United States and would only benefit multinational corporations.

Why were some people for NAFTA?

Supporters of “free” trade deals like NAFTA argue that the increase in trade spurs competition, investment, innovation, and ultimately economic growth. 

Gary Clyde Hufbauer and Jeffrey J. Schott, experts at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and the authors of NAFTA Revisited: Achievements and Challenges, argued that NAFTA has achieved the intended results:

“NAFTA was designed to promote economic growth by spurring competition in domestic markets and promoting investment from both domestic and foreign sources. It has worked.”

Why were some people against NAFTA?

Many labor, environmental, consumer and religious groups pushed back against NAFTA, arguing that it would create a “push-to-the-bottom in wages, destroy hundreds of thousands of good U.S. jobs, undermine democratic control of domestic policy-making and threaten health, environmental and food safety standards.

One of the main concerns was that the deal would undermine national sovereignty was a big one. As described by public advocacy group Public Citizen, “NAFTA contained 900 pages of one-size-fits-all rules to which each nation was required to conform all of its domestic laws – regardless of whether voters and their democratically-elected representatives had previously rejected the very same policies”.

What did Bernie say about NAFTA?

Bernie says NAFTA is a failure.


In 1993, Bernie spoke against NAFTA, saying that this fast track agreement with Mexico “will be a disaster for our working people, for our farmers, and for the environment in general.”  Bernie wrote in a 1993 editorial that in his view, “NAFTA will accelerate all of these negative economic trends, and will only benefit the ruling elites of the United States, Mexico, and Canada.”

Bernie put his fellow Representatives on the spot before the NAFTA vote by introducing a bill that if NAFTA were to pass, the members of the House would have to lower their wages to be competitive with politicians in Mexico. 

Here’s Bernie introducing the bill:    

What were the results of NAFTA?

In 2011 while speaking on the Senate floor, Bernie reminded his colleagues that Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) claimed in 1993 that “American firms will not move to Mexico just for lower wages.” Bernie then pointed out how over the next ten years after the passing of NAFTA, Mattel, Lexmark International, Texas Instruments, General Electric, Tyco Electronics, and Levi Strauss laid off a total of 3,176 employees and shifted their production to Mexico.

Recent reports and studies have shown that because of NAFTA Americans have lost over 680,000 jobs. One report estimates the job loss as a result of NAFTA is 950,000. A senior economist at EPI stated the following about the disastrous results from NAFTA: “The growing U.S. trade deficit with Mexico has displaced a large number of jobs in the United States and is a significant contributor to the current crisis in U.S. manufacturing, which lost 5.6 million jobs between February 2000 and February 2011.” 

This chart shows the nearly $2 trillion trade deficit with Mexico since NAFTA: 


This map shows the states affected by the job losses from NAFTA: 


Why has NAFTA been in the news lately?

President Trump made good on a campaign promise to renegotiate NAFTA.  The U.S. withdrew from NAFTA and then negotiated with Mexico to replace it. Canada joined the pact and the result is the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) Under the USMCA, there continues to be tariff-free trade for most goods. There are some provisions that may benefit American workers when the USMCA is implemented.

Bernie strongly opposed the NAFTA replacement calling it NAFTA 2.0.  He said in a statement,

“In my view, a re-negotiated NAFTA must stop the outsourcing of U.S. jobs, end the destructive race to the bottom, protect the environment, and lower the outrageously high price of prescription drugs. […] Unless strong enforcement mechanisms are written into the text of this agreement, corporations will continue to ship U.S. jobs to Mexico where workers are paid as little as $2 an hour.” 

Bernie wanted protections for workers in the USMCA to keep jobs from leaving the U.S. saying, “Do not send this treaty to Congress unless it includes strong and swift enforcement mechanisms to raise the wages of workers and to prevent corporations from outsourcing American jobs to Mexico,” 

Trade Policy With China

Bernie opposed normalizing trade relations with China. He firmly believes that current trade relations with China are detrimental to job growth and wealth equality in the United States. Bernie has criticized trade deals as being “designed to protect the interests of the largest multinational corporations at the expense of workers, consumers, the environment and the foundations of American democracy.” The U.S. trade deficit with China was $419 billion in 2018.  The growing trade deficit with China has led to the loss of over 3.4 million U.S. manufacturing jobs since 2001.

Visit the China issue page for additional information about U.S./China trade policy.

What does Bernie’s track record look like with regard to Chinese trade policy?

In 1993, Bernie voted in the House against granting China “Most Favored Nation” status. In 2000, Bernie voted against Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) with China which has lead to the loss of more than 3.4 million jobs for Americans.

“Let’s be clear: one of the major reasons that the middle class in America is disappearing, poverty is increasing and the gap between the rich and everyone else is growing wider and wider is due to our disastrous unfettered free trade policy.”

Maybe trade agreements aren’t great for Americans, but don’t they provide millions of jobs for Chinese workers?

Bernie firmly rejects the idea that America’s standard of living must drop in order to see a raise in the standard of living in China. When asked about the impact of these trade agreements for Chinese workers in a July 2015 interview, Bernie said:

“I want to see the people in China live in a democratic society with a higher standard of living. I want to see that, but I don’t think that has to take place at the expense of the American worker. I don’t think decent-paying jobs in this country have got to be lost as companies shut down here and move to China. I want to see the Chinese people do as well, but I do not want to see the collapse of the American middle class take place, and I will fight against that as hard as I can.”

In this interview Bernie discuss these topics:

Trans-Pacific Partnership

Bernie was a vocal opponent of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, which he argues “follows in the footsteps of other unfettered free trade agreements like NAFTA…[which] have forced American workers to compete against desperate and low-wage labor around the world.”

TPP was almost completely negotiated. Although President Trump withdrew from TPP negotiations, some of its provisions were included in the renegotiations of NAFTA.

What is the TPP exactly?

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a massive trade deal between many countries around the Pacific ocean, involving 650 million people. These countries include Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam. These countries would be able to trade with each other much more freely, without large tariffs paid to the government for moving goods around.


Wait — I thought it was called TPA, or TAA, or something like that.

There are several bills moving through congress as different pieces of the deal. In this explanation, we see that the TPP is the main trade treaty, the TPA (Trade Promotion Authority) is the “fast track” part of the bill, preventing congress from amending the bill, and the TAA (Trade Adjustment Assistance) is intended to help workers who lose their jobs because of the treaty. Besides (TPP), there are other large trade deals that are being negotiated that you might have heard about – Trade in Services Agreement (TISA), and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP)

Remind me – what’s so bad about lower barriers to trade?

See NAFTA and PNTR with China above. All of the previous trade deals had disastrous consequences for American workers, so there’s no reason to expect anything different this time.

Anything else?

Bernie was especially concerned about a clause in the TPP called “Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS)” which would allow corporations to sue governments for actions that hurt their profits. This could be easily abused to limit governments’ abilities to keep their citizens and the environment safe. Most alarmingly, the international lawsuits would be judged and decided by corporate lawyers. At least we think so, the deal is being negotiated in secret so no one has actually read the agreement.

But, the U.S. Trade Representative explained that ISDS is necessary:

  1. To resolve investment conflicts without creating state-to-state conflict
  2. To protect citizens abroad
  3. To signal to potential investors that the rule of law will be respected

While that sounds reasonable enough, the history of corporations suing governments over health and safety regulations gives plenty of reason to be concerned. One unnerving example of this is Phillip Morris suing governments around the world for their regulations on cigarette sales. If you have 20 minutes, check out this funny and informative exposé by John Oliver.

Really? What’s the deal with it being “secret”?

The TPP has been kept almost entirely secret. The public has not been given access to the bill. The public is only able to know what has been leaked, or explained by congressional representatives. Members of Congress cannot photograph or copy the bill, and their staff are not allowed to see the bill.

Bernie has spoken out against this secrecy. In this letter to the U.S. Trade Representative, he writes:

“It is incomprehensible to me that the leaders of major corporate interests who stand to gain enormous financial benefits from this agreement are actively involved in the writing of the TPP while, at the same time, the elected officials of this country, representing the American people, have little or no knowledge as to what is in it.”

Bernie explains his position in this video:

So what did Bernie say about TPP?

Bernie outlined ten specific objections leading him to join other progressives in voting against granting fast-track authority for TPP. Among his reasons for voting to stop the TPP were: TPP will allow corporations to outsource even more jobs overseas, Wall Street would benefit at the expense of everyone else, and the TPP has no expiration date, making it virtually impossible to repeal.

Bernie also opposed the secrecy surrounding the TPP:

“If TPP was such a good deal for America, the administration should have the courage to show the American people exactly what is in this deal, instead of keeping the content of the TPP a secret.”

Bernie wrote in an editorial that “the TPP is simply the continuation of a failed approach to trade — an approach which benefits large multinational corporations and Wall Street, but which is a disaster for working families.”

In 2015, Bernie spoke out in congress about the TPP:

What other groups opposed the TPP? 

Over 1,500 organizations opposed TPP including business groups, labor groups, environmental groups, Faith groups, and agriculture groups. Doctors without Borders believes the TPP contains “rules that would restrict access to affordable, lifesaving medicines for millions of people,” and is urged the United States, and other countries, to withdraw from the deal.

What about other countries? Don’t they need jobs?

In an editorial, Bernie wrote:

“[T]wo of the countries in the TPP are Vietnam and Malaysia. In Vietnam, the minimum wage is equivalent to 56 cents an hour, independent labor unions are banned and people are thrown in jail for expressing their political beliefs or trying to improve labor conditions. In Malaysia, migrant workers who manufacture electronics products are working as modern-day slave laborers who have had their passports and wages confiscated and are unable to return to their own countries. American workers should not have to ‘compete’ against people forced to work under these conditions. This is not ‘free trade’; it is a race to the bottom.”

So what does Bernie think we should do?

Bernie is not suggesting we close all doors to trade, he believes that fair trade agreements can be successful. In a 2007 editorial, he wrote:

“Nobody I know believes we should place a wall around this country. Trade is a good thing, but what we must begin doing is negotiating fair trade agreements that reflect the interests of working families in America, working families in other countries, and not just large multinational corporations and the CEOs who help write these trade agreements.”

Bernie wrote in a 2015 editorial, “The TPP must be defeated, but our overall trade policy must also change for corporations to start investing in America and creating jobs here again, and not just in China and other low wage countries.”

Bernie’s Agenda for America calls ending free trade policies. Instead of passing such trade deals, Bernie argues we must “develop trade policies which demand that American corporations create jobs here, and not abroad.” Visit the Job Creation page and NAFTA for specifics on how Bernie wants to do this.

In addition, Bernie is a founding member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), and has adopted various CPC’s position papers regarding trade deals. The CPC’s principles on trade highlight a commitment to put workers first, stop currency manipulation, and respecting human rights.

For more information about Bernie’s economic policies, check out our Economy and Jobs page.