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Trade pacts hurting Maine, manufacturers tell top US trade rep

Maine Public Broadcasting Network, USA

Trade Pacts Hurting Maine, Manufacturers Tell Top U.S. Trade Rep

By Tom Porter

6 August 2010

On the second day of a two-day visit to Maine, the president’s top trade advisor has been hearing from some members of the state’s manufacturing sector about how trade policy has been hurting them. U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk toured the Verso paper mill in Bucksport before holding a round table forum with business leaders and state officials this afternoon.

Speaking during a teleconference with reporters, Kirk said the goal of the discussions was to help them understand the rationale behind President Obama’s so-called National Export Initiative, which aims to double U.S. exports.

"In particular, the role that our being able to move forward with the Korean, Colombian and Panamanian free trade agreements can play in helping us meet that goal of doubling exports, but more importantly, creating jobs at a time that America desperately needs them," Kirk said.

The White House says the export initiative could help to create two million jobs. That’s no consolation, however, to the thousands of manufacturing workers who’ve lost their jobs in Maine since 1994, when the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed, says fair trade activist Sara Bigney.

"We’re talking about Maine jobs here, and they continue to be lost and the free trade agreements that Ambassador Kirk is pursuing and pushing will only continue to worsen the problem for workers here in Maine," she says.

Bigney is an organizer with the Maine Fair Trade Campaign, a coalition of 60 labor, environmental and human rights groups, which is actively opposed to NAFTA and other similar initiatives. Bigney says they’re unfair because they make American companies compete against countries where labor and environmental regulations are less stringent.

"There isn’t a level playing field and that’s the problem," she says. "A Lemforder plant in Brewer that made auto parts shut down and moved a lot of its production to Mexico, and the workers in Mexico work very long hours for very little pay. We can’t compete with companies that move abroad to take advantage of not having environmental standards and not having to follow the rules that we have here or using chemicals that we’ve banned here in the United States, but yet we import those products — they’re being manufactured using those chemicals abroad."

"We really campaigned hard for Obama because we felt he could bring change to NAFTA, and he campaigned on bringing change, and that’s what we really need to see now is change," says Mike Castenada, a former paper mill worker from Livermore Falls who lost his job when the plant closed down.

The domestic paper industry, he says, cannot compete against the cheap products from China which are flooding the market. "We just can’t compete. They don’t care about their workforce, their labor, their environmental laws are no good. They have a lot of things against us and we can’t compete on that level."

"We can compete with any company around the world but it has to be fair," says Maine’s 2nd District Democratic Congressman Mike Michaud, who’s up for re-election this November. Michaud has been accompanying Ron Kirk on his trip to Maine.

Michaud and his supporters used Kirk’s visit to urge him to support Michaud’s so-called TRADE act, which stands for Trade Reform, Accountability, Development and Employment Act. The bill calls for a review of existing trade agreements with the aim of strengthening congressional oversight and protecting workers rights. It currently has the support of nearly 150 members of Congress.

Michaud says that NAFTA, as is stands, creates winners and losers. "According to Ambassador Kirk, NAFTA actually helped in Texas, but here in Maine it hasn’t. We’ve lost over 40 percent of our manufacturing base because of bad trade deals."

Before the U.S. moves forward with any more deals, Michaud feels the administration needs to come out and specify what it wants in a trade agreement. "It’s my hope that this administration will do what it said it would do in the campaign and set a new policy, a new direction on trade. We have to have trade, but it has to be balanced and fair trade."

"We cannot be a protectionist society — this is a changing world, we live in a modern global economy, where communications, travel and goods are, quite frankly, irregardless of border," says Jason Levesque, Michaud’s Republican challenger in this year’s election and a big supporter of free trade.

The challenges faced by Maine’s paper industry, Levesque says, are more a result of the state’s non-business-friendly climate than foreign competition. "I’d argue that they need to look at the paper industry domestically and realize that there are paper machines and paper plants that are starting up in other parts of the United States, namely Virginia. So we’re not necessarily losing jobs to foreign entities, we’re losing jobs to other states because we are not a business-friendly district any more."

Maine companies, he says, need to become more competitive and not rely on what he calls "trade walls" to insulate them from foreign competition. He does not, he says, support efforts to make foreign companies abide by certain labor and environmental standards.

"Do we just take our ball and go home and stop playing if they don’t abide by our rules and our social conscience?" Levesque says. "I just think it’s another excuse to be not competitive in a modern global economy and to build that wall and become more of a protectionist society, which will not work in this day and age."

Levesque says he conceptually agrees with President Obama’s export initiative. Ron Kirk meanwhile said he had an "honest discussion" about the effects of trade policy on some Maine businesses. He insists the administration is responsive to the concerns of manufacturing interests in Maine, but does not have what he calls a silver bullet to immediately solve their problems.