Mixed Reactions to Free-Trade Agreements

Depending on whom you ask, free-trade pacts will either create or kill thousands of American jobs.

UPDATED AT 4:34 P.M. EDT -- When long-stalled free-trade pacts with Columbia, Panama and South Korea sailed through Congress Wednesday night, it was a monumental victory for the National Association of Manufacturers.

The free-trade agreements were NAM's "top trade priority," association President and CEO Jay Timmons said.

"These free-trade agreements are key to our economic growth and competitiveness, and we hope the president will act quickly to implement them," Timmons said.

"Today's action by the Senate and House to pass these agreements is a big step toward creating much-needed jobs as we reach new markets. Manufacturers welcome today's votes after years of inaction."

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce struck a similar tone, hailing the bipartisan agreements as the potential foundation of "an aggressive new trade agenda."

"Passing these trade agreements represents a victory for American workers, American competitiveness and American leadership," said Thomas Donohue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber.

"It means we will immediately stop losing jobs to our competitors who have cut their own deals and we can start creating hundreds of thousands of new jobs for Americans."

In a rare gesture of support for the Democratic administration, the chamber lauded President Obama, White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley as well as Republicans in Congress "for successfully carving a path forward to complete the trade agreements."

"At a time when many people think Washington is broken, members of Congress from both parties and the administration put American jobs first by making these trade agreements a reality," Donohue said.

"Let's make the approval of these agreements a foundation for moving bipartisan, job-creating policies forward."

Donohue urged lawmakers to build on passage of these agreements with an aggressive new trade agenda, including swift negotiation of a Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.

He also said the United States needs to explore eliminating all tariffs on trade with the European Union, the nation's largest economic partner. The chamber believes such a move could boost transatlantic trade by $120 billion over five years.

The Association of Equipment Manufacturers also welcomed the passage of the free-trade pacts.

"Not only will these agreements help level the playing field for U.S. manufacturers, increasing their global competitiveness, but there is widespread agreement that these export agreements will help job growth and boost our overall economy," AEM President Dennis Slater said. "High tariffs on U.S. exports have stunted job growth in manufacturing and other sectors. Seeing these agreements move forward is crucial for our member companies to have the ability to compete in vital global markets."

Nothing that the United States already has trade pacts with 17 other countries, Marianne Rowden, president and CEO of the American Association of Exporters and Importers, asserted that the free-trade deals "will create thousands of U.S. jobs and bring in billions of dollars for the U.S. economy."

Another NAFTA?

Not everyone believes the free-trade agreements will be a boon to American manufacturing, particularly in the nation's heartland.

Prior to Wednesday night's vote, U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, who represents the Rust Belt region stretching from Toledo to Lorain County near Cleveland, likened the free-trade pacts with "the NAFTA deal that killed American jobs."

"These latest agreements simply continue the failed trade policies embodied by NAFTA," Kaptur said. "We have seen how these agreements have led to the outsourcing of U.S. jobs and production. We need a new direction in trade policy that puts the needs of working American families first."

Kaptur said she is particularly concerned that the auto industry -- her region includes an embattled Chrysler assembly plant in Toledo -- could be hit hard by the trade pact with South Korea. She cited Economic Policy Institute estimates that the U.S.-South Korea agreement would cost America up to 159,000 jobs.

"We have lost 6 million manufacturing jobs in the past decade," Kaptur said. "Enough is enough."

Ford President and CEO Alan Mulally, however, welcomed the passage of the free-trade agreement with South Korea.

"Last night's approval of the U.S.-Korea free-trade agreement will open new opportunities for Ford to reach even more Korean customers by selling them more American-made Focuses, Tauruses, Mustangs, Escapes and Explorers, among other cars and trucks," Mulally said.

Mulally said the automaker "deeply appreciate[s] the tireless efforts of the Obama administration and Congress to both improve the agreement and make this opportunity a reality."

Suppression of Labor Rights a Concern

Kaptur, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats voiced concern about labor rights in Columbia and Panama -- a concern shared by the AFL-CIO.

"A deal with Colombia is not just bad policy, it's immoral," asserted AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. "Colombians who try to organize to lift their families out of poverty are often murdered with impunity. Just last year, 51 trade unionists were assassinated. Would we pass a trade agreement with a country where 51 corporate CEOs had been murdered?

"And in Panama, we're not just destroying American jobs, but entering into a trade deal with a country that routinely tramples workers' rights and shelters money launderers and corporate tax dodgers."

NAM, meanwhile, focused on U.S. manufacturers' desperate need to boost exports.

"Much more work remains to be done in order to meet the president's goal to double exports by 2014, and manufacturers are committed to expanding access to markets overseas because 95% of consumers live outside the United States," Timmons said.

"These free-trade agreements are key to our economic growth and competitiveness, and we hope the president will act quickly to implement them."

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