Friday, April 13, 2007

Off Track

By Teamsters General President James P. Hoffa

I grew up and graduated from a Detroit public high school, played football at Michigan State, and have worked here for many years. I’m a proud Michigan native.

It’s this allegiance and my belief in fellow Michiganders’ abilities that makes me so angry when I see the dire financial conditions that many fellow residents endure today. Michigan has fallen from its booming days primarily because our good-paying manufacturing jobs have been exported. As a result, more and more middle-class families find it increasingly difficult to make their homes here.

We’re in “the most severe crisis in the state’s existence,” says David Littmann, senior economist at the Michigan’s Mackinac Center for Public Policy, in a recent Washington Post story. Michigan’s per capita income remains 7 percent below the national average, Littmann says, and, for the first time since the Great Depression, Michigan is a poor state relative to the rest of the nation.

Detroit has the highest unemployment rate of any U.S. city, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Since the beginning of 2000, Michigan’s unemployment rate has doubled, from 3.3 percent to 6.6 percent—only Mississippi has a higher rate. Some 305,000 jobs have been lost since 2001 and the jobs that have been created fail to provide the needed pay and benefits. As a result, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that approximately 65,000 people moved out of state from July 2005 to July 2006.

A chief facilitator of this migration, of both our neighbors and jobs with fair pay and benefits, are so-called “free trade” agreements. The truth is, there is nothing free about these deals—we’re paying a high price for these deals. Our federal government must rethink the way it negotiates trade agreements.

A smart first step is allowing Fast Track authority to expire. Since Congress granted President Bush this power in 2002, he has used it to craft a series of agreements that sell workers short. This authority is scheduled to expire on July 1. Despite the president’s call to renew it, the new congressional leadership must allow Fast Track to expire.

As negotiated by the Bush administration, the “free trade” agreements—with individual countries, such as Australia, Chile, Morocco, Oman, Bahrain, and greater regional agreements, like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA)—are nothing more than off-shoring agreements that have made it easier and more beneficial for U.S. companies to shop for the cheapest sweatshop wage and weakest labor laws.

In late March, the Bush administration negotiated another substandard “free trade” agreement with South Korea. Congressional Democrats criticized the proposed deal as “completely inadequate in the face of Korea’s longstanding iron curtain to American manufactured products,” particularly United States cars. Only 4,000 American cars were sold in South Korea last year, while South Korea exported 800,000 vehicles to the U.S. This imbalance must be addressed.

As long as the “free trade” agreements continue to promote a race to the bottom—by way of soulless commerce and little regard to workers’ rights and national security—the Teamsters Union will continue to strongly oppose them.

Our country’s trade agreements have become increasingly problematic since President Bush took office. Although the U.S. has run trade deficits for more than three decades, the shortfalls have more than doubled since President Bush took office, reaching successively higher records in each of the past five years.

In 2006 our deficit topped $850 billion. Since 1994, the first full year NAFTA was in effect, we have accumulated more than $5 trillion in external or trade debt. (That’s a staggering number; most CEOs won’t even make that much in a lifetime.)

What’s more, some of these agreements have inadvertently created national security issues. With NAFTA, our battle to ensure that trucks from Mexico are safe began—Congress had to step in to ensure that Mexican trucks are certified as safe before traveling on our highways. By severely reducing our manufacturing base, we rely on other nations to build materials that allow us to defend our nation.

By contrast, our international trade policy should benefit both companies and workers. Such a policy could make a major difference in Michigan and throughout the United States by providing job security for workers and their families; improving quality of schools; and determining whether children’s job prospects are booming or flagging.

As we’re seeing here in Michigan, we cannot achieve these results while Fast Track authority exists.

Mr. Hoffa's letter to the editor originally appeared in The Detroit News on April 13, 2007.