PARIS — Speakers from local businesses and organizations assailed global trade agreements at a public hearing Thursday, calling upon a state legislative commission to improve international relations to revitalize Maine business.
The Legislature established Maine Citizen Trade Policy Commission to analyze the effect of international trade agreements on Maine. The 22-member body has held public meetings in communities across the state to hear the positive and negative effects of such policies. It then makes recommendations to state and federal officials, including the governor and congressional delegates.
The commission has criticized trade agreements at the hearings. It states that free trade agreements such as the World Trade Organization and North American Free Trade Agreement allow foreign companies and countries to challenge local and state laws.
The commission says such hearings are held in closed-door international tribunals and can lead to companies challenging legislation related to public health and environmental protection.
Speakers at Thursday’s hearing at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School urged support for the Trade Reform, Accountability, Development and Employment Act introduced by Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. The TRADE legislation would review and renegotiate existing trade agreements.
Michaud has accused China and Indonesia of deliberately undervaluing their currency and hurting Maine businesses such as NewPage paper mill in Rumford by increased importation of low-cost paper to the United States.
He has praised an initial decision by the U.S. Department of Commerce that could lead to tariffs on certain types of coated paper.
Ron Hemingway, a NewPage worker and member of Local 900 of the United Steelworkers Union, said the appeals on paper imports are a positive step. However, he said the countries could circumvent the tariffs by changing the grade of the imported paper. He said there is a need for fair trade to break such a cycle and for enforcement to ensure that it works properly.
“This is much larger than just paper mills,” he said. “It is about every product we manufacture here in Maine and across the United States.”
Deano Gilbert, an electrician at NewPage, said Maine manufacturing jobs have been hit hard by international trade agreements. He recalled having to lay off 60 percent of his crew at one point and the hardships those workers had to endure.
“It ran the spectrum to not being able to buy your kid soccer equipment to cashing in your 401(k )to buy your family insurance,” he said.
Don Berry, a master electrician from Sumner, said part of the reason products can be produced at less cost in foreign countries is the lack of standards or unenforced standards on labor and the environment, leading to problems in those areas. He said he is part of a national union but work is scarce, with bids for Maine projects coming in from as far away as California.
“This is the worst it’s ever been, and it’s really caused by the trade agreements we’ve signed,” Berry said.
Bob St. Peter, a farmer from Sedgwick, said young rural populations are being displaced due to a focus on large-scale commodity production of food for export. He said such displacement has been spread to other countries by NAFTA. He recommended repealing the agreement.
“As a small-scale producer, I simply can’t compete with a multinational corporation receiving subsidies from the U.S. government,” he said.
Tom Whitney, a former pediatrician, said he visited Mexico shortly after NAFTA was passed. He said cheap corn imports were hurting farmers, causing millions to move to the cities or to try to come to the United States. He said the practice leads to increased poverty and death by malnutrition in Mexico.
Delia Gorham, a Randolph resident who has been doing grassroots work for clean energy, said she supports the TRADE Act as well as investment in clean-energy jobs. She said the latter action would require strong trade protections to prevent such jobs from going overseas.
“The state of Maine and the country as a whole cannot lose those jobs to countries that have already gotten behind this industry,” she said.