LEWISTON — Local fair trade advocates expressed “cautious optimism” Friday in reaction to President Barack Obama’s recent trade speech in which he reiterated his plan to double U.S. exports over the next five years.
The plan was announced by Obama in his State of the Union address. In a speech Thursday at an event in Washington, D.C., the president provided further details about his National Export Initiative.
He said the United States hasn’t always done enough to help workers adapt to a changing marketplace.
“What’s why, for the first time, the United States of America is launching a single, comprehensive strategy to promote American exports; it’s called the National Export Initiative and it’s an ambitious effort to marshal the full resources of the United States government behind American businesses that sell their goods and services abroad,” Obama said.
More than 40 trade missions have been scheduled this year and the U.S. Small Business Association, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Trade Development Agency will set up clinics to help businesses build their exports, Obama said.
Sarah Bigney, an organizer at the Maine Fair Trade Campaign in Lewiston, said Obama’s commitment to increasing exports is a good thing and could help Maine workers who have been hurt by the decline in manufacturing. But she cautioned that to truly improve the economy, the administration also must reduce the number of cheap imports pouring into the United States.
“We are losing jobs due to sweatshop practices and exploitation of workers around the world,” Bigney said. “We see it here in paper, in Maine. Chinese paper is flooding our market and it’s putting a lot of Mainers out of work and that’s due to a lot of reasons in China, but including worker exploitation, environmental degradation and then of course the currency issue.”
The Chinese are manipulating their currency to make their imports artificially cheap in the United States, she said.
U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, a Democrat representing Maine’s 2nd Congressional District and the chairman of the House Trade Working Group, met with U.S. Trade Rep. Ron Kirk on Wednesday. Michaud said he was optimistic about Obama’s trade policy.
“We must do everything we can to make sure that all market expansion opportunities are available to our businesses; the president’s National Export Initiative is a good step forward,” he said in a statement. “But I urge caution when it comes to moving forward on trade agreements that are based on the NAFTA model. I have seen the devastating effects of our failed trade policies firsthand, and so have thousands of Mainers. The number of Trade Adjustment Assistance applications filed, and the frequency of their approvals, demonstrates just how tough our nation’s trade policies have been on Maine’s workers and businesses.”
In 2009, workers laid off from Wausau Paper in Jay, St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railroad in Auburn and NewPage Corp. in Rumford, among others, received TAA support. An average of 600 workers per year received the aid between 2005 and 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Bigney said that trend would continue until U.S. trade policy is overhauled.
“We’ve seen what happened in Jay, since that mill shut down,” she said. “It’s just really hard on the folks there. They cannot find other work; it’s lower-paying work if they do find it. It’s just been a huge blow to the whole community.”
Bigney said she hopes Congress moves forward on a measure sponsored by Michaud called the TRADE Act, which would initiate a comprehensive analysis of what the current trade policy has done to manufacturing and would lay out future standards for trade agreements aimed at balancing foreign trade.