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Mayor’s Corner: Korea Free Trade Agreement is bad for jobs, democracy

By Laurent F. Gilbert Sr.

Mayor of Lewiston

Times are tough. The economic situation in our country mandates that we create jobs–good jobs—that will sustain families and our communities. Over the last two decades, we have outsourced manufacturing to foreign countries at an alarming rate.

The American worker is the collateral, and the result is an eroding middle class. Free-trade policies like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) have incentivized this reality. The ripple effects are far and wide. From a municipal perspective alone, the loss in well-paying jobs reduces our revenue stream and burdens our budget.

Most disturbing is that while Washington should be investing in job creation and securing a solid domestic manufacturing base, they are instead moving forward with the corporate-driven, free-trade agenda.

The Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) is another NAFTA-style deal that benefits multinational corporations at the expense of workers everywhere. If history is an indicator, there would be no dispute that the free-trade agenda is harmful to manufacturing and our economy here in Maine and around the country. Maine has lost 31,000 manufacturing jobs since the passage of NAFTA; millions of jobs have been lost nationally.

We don’t have to travel far in Maine to see the hardship of families who are out of work or underemployed as a result of mills and shops shutting down. As Maine struggles to emerge from the economic crisis, the last thing we need is another trade deal that will put more pressure on the workers and industries remaining.

Why do we always negotiate deals that place us at a disadvantage to benefit a few? The President and Congress have a duty and a responsibility to represent all of us, not just the corporate giants. Only we can keep their feet to the fire; if not, we all lose.

There are 10,792 Mainers employed in sectors of the economy that the United States International Trade Commission has identified as most at risk under the Korea Free Trade Agreement. Included are: 2,506 in metal products manufacturing; 2,479 in textiles; 1,988 in electronics; and 3,518 in auto parts and other transportation equipment. Good jobs right here in Androscoggin County are at risk.

Auburn Manufacturing, for example, produces high-tech industrial textiles, which is one of the sectors most threatened by cheap Korean imports. I can only imagine that businesses like Formed Fiber Technologies, an auto parts manufacturer in Auburn, could also be affected if this deal were to be implemented.

Why would we not want businesses like Auburn Manufacturing, which employs around 50 people, to succeed right here in our area with our own workers? This company is committed to its employees, Maine and our community.  Don’t we believe that our local, state and nation’s economic health would benefit by growth in our own manufacturing companies?

In addition to the hemorrhaging of the manufacturing sector and the implications for jobs and municipal budgets, as mayor I am also disturbed by a whole set of policies in the Korea Free Trade Agreement that afford extraordinary rights to corporations and interfere with state sovereignty and local control. The same investment provisions found in NAFTA are replicated in the Korean trade deal. These provisions provide legal privileges to foreign corporations that allow them to challenge local, state and federal laws, such as those enacted to protect the health and safety of our communities.

When Mainers democratically elect a Board of Selectmen, City Council or Legislature, they are exercising their trust in representative democracy. The City Council of Lewiston or the Legislature of Maine sets policy in the best interest of the city or state. These free-trade pacts, however, can supersede our state and local democracy!

Policies such as Kids Safe Products Act, which protects children by banning unnecessary and toxic chemicals from children’s products, state procurement policies and even local zoning rules could be challenged by Korean corporations if the Korea Free Trade Agreement were to pass.

The threat of these lawsuits is even greater than past free-trade agreements with developing countries: there are at least 1,030 Korean corporations with 2,055 establishments throughout the U.S. All of these corporations would gain new rights under the Korea Free Trade Agreement.

It’s hard to imagine, but it is a real concern that a law passed here in Maine could be challenged by a Korean company claiming the law limits its right to future profits. Moreover, such a case wouldn’t be argued here in Maine, or even in the U.S. domestic court system, but instead in foreign trade tribunals.

These corporate privileges have no place in trade policy, are an insult to local and state governance and should be removed before moving forward with new free trade agreements.

Recently, Maine Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins bravely refused to join other Senate Republicans who demanded that the President and Congress move forward with the other Bush-negotiated free-trade agreements with Colombia and Panama. We now need Senators Snowe and Collins to oppose the most immediate threat to Maine jobs and democracy: the Korea Free Trade Agreement.

If you believe, as I do, that Maine’s Senators must show their leadership on this issue and make statements against the Korea Free Trade Agreement before it comes up for a vote, then I urge you to call them at their local offices here in L-A. Call Senator Snowe at 786-2451 and Senator Collins at 784-6969.

See Mayor Gilbert’s personal blog at www.MayorLarryGilbert.com.

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