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Free-trade advocate urges businesses to speak up

William Lane has watched the presidential candidates criticize free-trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Lane, a former lobbyist for industrial giant Caterpillar Inc., says it’s time American companies “stop avoiding eye contact on trade” and stand up for the deals.

“So far, with a few exceptions – the Caterpillars, the GEs, the Federal Expresses, there’s been some comment – but for the most part, folks are staying on the sideline, in the shadows, and not participating in the debate in a serious way,” he said.

Lane defends free-trade deals and their value to the U.S. economy, especially in a cross-border region like Buffalo Niagara. The Virginia resident visited Wednesday to speak at a World Trade Center Buffalo Niagara event.

It’s a timely topic. The expected Republican nominee, Donald Trump, has bashed the terms of America’s free trade deals, and Hillary Clinton, who will secure the Democratic nomination, has turned against the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, has denounced the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a job-killing “giveaway” to corporations that is bad for working people in the United States and other countries.

Last year, the publication called Lane a “central player in the push to get the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal across the finish line.”

Lane thinks there is a lot at stake for the U.S. economy when it comes to free trade. So why are so few U.S. corporations joining the debate?

“I think there’s a little bit of concern that they could be bullied if they did, and some uncertainty about who’s going to win,” he said.

Lane said the current trade debate in the United States is reminiscent of the 1930s.

“To me, it’s not just trade,” he said. “It’s about whether the U.S., and some of their allies, are going to turn inward or not.”

President Obama wants the U.S. to join 11 other countries in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, saying it will benefit U.S. exporters and American consumers, but Congress has not decided which way to go. It’s unclear whether there will even be a vote on the agreement this year because of the elections.

How would Lane make the case to an American worker wary of a deal like the Trans-Pacific Partnership?

“It modernizes the free trade agreements that are in place,” he said. “But more than anything else, it gives Japan and Vietnam the excuse to modernize their economies. Right now, while their tariffs are relatively low, Japan has enormous non-tariff barriers. This gives them the excuse to get rid of them.”

Lane said every trade agreement “needs to be tweaked,” and he expects that will happen with the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

In the meantime, he wants to see businesses speak up on the issue.

“But if you don’t tell folks what’s at stake or what the competitive environment is, you’re ceding the playing field to others,” he said. “And that’s my biggest disappointment right now.”