Western New York labor leaders Tuesday launched a campaign against "fast-track" status for trade talks with Latin America, unveiling a television commercial that slams the North American Free Trade Agreement.
"If this was such a good thing, why haven't we seen the benefits in this country?" said Thomas Fricano, regional director of the United Auto Workers.
Proclaiming they want fair trade as well as free trade, union officials met at the UAW's headquarters in Cheektowaga Tuesday to outline the campaign, which the AFL-CIO vows will be stronger than its unsuccessful battle against NAFTA in 1993.
President Clinton asked Congress Sept. 17 for authority to negotiate trade accords, including an expansion of NAFTA. Such "fast-track" status means that Congress would have a single vote for or against the pact.
Tuesday, Clinton reached a compromise with House Republicans on the legislation, but he was having difficulty lining up Democratic support.
The administration insisted on Tuesday that the compromise language worked out in an all-night bargaining session with GOP staffers of the House Ways and Means Committee would give Clinton the power he needs to ensure that any future trade deals do not expose American workers to unfair competition from developing nations.
"We have reached an agreement that addresses key Democratic concerns and retains the president's flexibility to meet trade, labor, environmental and health and safety goals as part of the trade agenda," said Jay Ziegler, a spokesman for U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky.
Advocates say fast-track is essential to the completion of an accord, because trading partners won't negotiate terms that could unravel in Congress.
Clinton needs the negotiating authority to meet a plan for an expanded free trade zone, essentially extending NAFTA throughout the western hemisphere by 2005.
The 30-second commercial shows workers disappearing from a factory floor. An announcer charges that NAFTA has exported jobs, increased pollution on the U.S. border and brought tainted food to grocery shelves. A radio version of the ad also is running.
The spot concludes with a toll-free number for callers to be switched to the office of Rep. John LaFalce, D-Tonawanda, who hasn't made up his mind on fast-track, according to New York AFL-CIO political director Suzy Ballantyne.
Among the rest of the local delegation, Rep. Jack Quinn, R-Hamburg, opposes fast track, while Reps. Bill Paxon, R-Amherst, and Amory Houghton, R-Corning, support it, according to the AFL-CIO's poll of Congress.
Throughout the state, 21 congressmen oppose fast-track status, three support it and six are undecided, she said.
AFL-CIO councils in Erie and Niagara counties are planning rallies and letter-writing campaigns aimed at the region's lawmakers. Sam Williams, president of the Niagara-Orleans Central Labor Council, said the organization is planning a rally at an undecided location that has lost jobs to NAFTA. The trade pact holds workers hostage to the threat of their jobs moving to Mexico, he said, allowing companies to push down wages.
"It's a subconscious fear in the back of everybody's mind," he said.
The AFL-CIO charges that NAFTA has cost 420,000 jobs in the United States, as rising imports from low-wage producers replace U.S. goods. The estimate is based on a rising trade deficit with NAFTA partners. Trade proponents dispute the size of the figure, but the Clinton administration acknowledges that the trade agreement has cost U.S. jobs.
Nearly half the job losses came in the auto industry, Fricano said, and the squeeze is being felt in Western New York's important auto components sector.
Workers who don't see their jobs exported face the threat of job loss, giving employers the upper hand in wage negotiations, he said. For example, Trico Products Corp. employees have accepted about $4 in wage concessions since Stant Corp. acquired the company in 1994, to avoid seeing the jobs moved to Mexico, he said. Stant has since been bought by Tomkins Plc of Britain.
Linking the trade deal to higher wages and environmental safeguards would save U.S. jobs by fostering a market for American goods, said John Kaczorowski, president of the AFL-CIO's Buffalo Council. It also would cut the incentive to shift jobs to low-wage nations.
"There's no way people earning 20 cents an hour can buy more (U.S.) products," he said.