Northwest Oregon Labor Council

Trade agreements: Who really benefits and loses?

By Barbara Byrd

Last week, Congress passed three trade agreements that will have devastating consequences for workers in Oregon and nationally. These three agreements -- treaties with Korea, Panama and Colombia -- have been promoted with grossly inflated estimates of their job creation potential. We know better. Jobs will be lost, and they will be good, family-wage jobs -- primarily in manufacturing. It's not mere coincidence that along with the measures, Congress also enacted increases in trade adjustment assistance -- money designated to help workers who lose their jobs because of global trade. And good thing, because we're going to need that money here in Oregon.

In a recent commentary, several business leaders attempted to make the case for Congress to ratify the three trade agreements ("Oregon needs trade agreements to compete," Oct. 10). Their arguments centered on the dubious proposition that these trade agreements would benefit the Oregon economy by opening foreign markets to Oregon-based exporters. They claimed that increased exports would lead to more jobs in our state, but they overlooked the fact that imports will increase, as well, and the movement of manufacturing out of our state will accelerate. In fact, the trade deficit may well increase because of these agreements. Oregon is already losing an average of 10,000 jobs per year to foreign trade; these numbers could very well increase.

Let's be specific:

The Korean Free Trade Agreement advocates claim that ratification will create 70,000 new jobs for American workers. This claim is based on faulty methodology that ignores the consequences of the expected growth in imports and trade diversion (from other Third World countries to Korea). It will hit Oregon particularly hard. Not only are Korean wages about one-third lower than American wages, but two of the industries that economists believe may be hardest hit by the Korea treaty are electronics and agriculture, both mainstays of our state. It is hard to imagine what could justify accelerating our job loss in these areas, particularly when so many people in our state are already struggling.

Korean workers aren't too happy about this deal, either. Social movements in Korea have waged a militant campaign against ratification in their country.

The Colombia Free Trade Agreement raises a different issue. Not only are wages lower in that country, but workers there lack the freedom to improve their conditions. In Colombia, an average of 50 union leaders are assassinated every year. It is the most dangerous country in the world for workers and their representatives, and now Colombia has been rewarded for its anti-union, anti-worker actions with the passage of this treaty.

Our few federal elected officials willing to vote against these deals showed great courage in the face of a massive, Chamber of Commerce-led lobbying effort. We owe our thanks particularly to U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley and Congressman Peter DeFazio, who voted against all three agreements. As Merkley said, "I am a strong proponent of shipping our electronics, machinery and agricultural products like wheat around the world. Our workers and businesses, however, need to be able to compete on a level playing field. A primary flaw of each of these agreements is the lack of strong enforcement mechanisms to ensure fair environmental and labor standards. Without strong enforcement, these agreements give foreign manufacturers huge advantages that will continue to destroy American jobs."

Remember these votes as Oregon continues to lose jobs to global competition, as wages fall in our state and as the gap between rich and poor continues to grow.

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