Home for the holiday, congressmen hear from unionists

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

Portland area labor leaders met with several members of Congress the week of Fourth of July when they were home from Washington, D.C., during a brief congressional recess.

U.S. Representative Earl Blumenauer and U.S. Senator Ron Wyden initiated breakfast meetings attended by 85 and 105 unionists, respectively, while Representative David Wu met with a delegation of AFL-CIO officials.

At the Blumenauer breakfast July 1, union leaders had a surprise with their ham and eggs: A pamphlet announcing that the congressman is considering a run for Portland mayor. The former state legislator and Portland city and Multnomah County commissioner tried to focus on local issues during the breakfast, saying he wants Portland to remain as the livable community it’s reputed to be.

Blumenauer, a Portland Democrat, pitched an idea of development that’s not all “Starbucks and yuppification,” and said he wants Portland to reject the “Wal-Mart version of the economy.”

“There are lots of places to buy tubs of peanut butter,” Blumenauer said, “but there aren’t many places that build railroad cars.”

Without going into specifics, he said he would want to focus on streamlining Portland’s development process, public safety, education and healing the rift between urban and rural Oregon. But questioners kept bringing him back to national issues like transportation, privatization and trade, where his votes in Congress could make a difference.

Two new NAFTA-like trade agreements may come up for a vote in Congress any day now, and union members pressed all three members of Congress to oppose them. Under the “fast-track” rules approved by one vote last fall, Congress will have to vote up or down free-trade agreements with Chile and Singapore, without opportunity to amend.

Blumenauer had a record of supporting free-trade agreements until his vote last fall against the fast-track bill. He told union leaders at the breakfast that he plans to vote against the Singapore agreement because of a clause that would allow Singapore to re-export goods made in Indonesia, duty-free. But, he said, he plans to vote for the Chile agreement.

“Some people had a little heartburn when they found out about my position on the Chile Free Trade Agreement,” Blumenauer said. “In this community, we have to be smart about international trade and shoot our bullets where it will make a difference.”

Blumenauer suggested the Chile agreement could mean more jobs for union Longshore workers and for workers at Freightliner’s Portland truck-making operation. He said Freightliner officials told him that they used to sell trucks made in Portland to Chile, but that a 6 percent Chilean tariff was a factor in the decision to sell Chile their Canadian and Mexican-made trucks instead. Mexico, Canada and the European Union each have their own free trade agreements with Chile.“I’d rather have us have a shot at the Chilean market,” Blumenauer said.

None of the unions whose members Blumenauer mentioned share his position that the Chile agreement would be good for U.S. jobs. The Machinists and Teamsters, who represent Freightliner workers, view both treaties as job-losers, and even the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which benefits from exports or imports, opposes the treaties on principle as bad for American workers.

“We have always been against all these so-called free-trade treaties,” said Steve Stallone, ILWU communications director. In November 1999, the ILWU closed all major West Coast ports in a one-day walkout to protest the World Trade Organization.

Hearing Blumenauer say that a free-trade agreement with Chile would lead to more export-related jobs for Oregon prompted Oregon AFL-CIO Research Director Lynn-Marie Crider to look into Canada’s experience since the Canada-Chile free trade agreement took effect in 1997. She found that Canadian exports to Chile fell from $392.4 million in 1997 to $279.3 million in 2002, while Canadian imports from Chile more than doubled from $325.9 million in 1997 to $668.5 million in 2002. Crider predicts the same effect if the U.S. passes such a treaty, and notes that every previous free- trade agreement the U.S. has signed has been followed by a worsened balance of trade.

Northwest Oregon Labor Council (NOLC) Executive Secretary-Treasurer Judy O’Connor closed the breakfast with an appeal. Too many American workers are losing jobs to foreign trade, she said, and provisions in the new trade agreements would bring more foreign workers to the United States, where they would compete with qualified American workers who are unemployed.

“We’re the savior of the world,” O’Connor declared. “Well, who’s going to save us?”

Wyden Talks About Trade

Wyden, too, has a record of disagreeing with labor on trade issues, going back as far as his 1992 vote for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), when he was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. But his remarks at the July 3 breakfast left some labor leaders wondering whether the senator’s position may be shifting.

Wyden, a Democrat, listened without defending the Chile and Singapore agreements, and told labor leaders he’s taking another look at the issue of free trade.

“It’s very clear that in a global economy when our wages are up here and their wages are down there that jobs are going to chase cheap labor all over the world,” Wyden said.

“I represent 800 members at Freightliner,” Machinists Business Representative Steve Hillesland told Wyden. “The last time you toured, we had 2,600 members. Thanks partly to NAFTA, those jobs have gone to Mexico.”

Wyden said Congress should look at the Chilean agreement very closely to see how it compares to the 2000 Free Trade Agreement with Jordan, which won the endorsement of the AFL-CIO because it included enforceable workers’ rights guarantees. Union leaders who have looked at the two new agreements conclude that their workers’ rights protections are toothless.

Oregon AFL-CIO President Tim Nesbitt urged Wyden to look also at the guest worker provisions of the new set of trade agreements: The treaties would allow employers to bring thousands of “professional” workers to the United States even if there is no local shortage in that occupation, and these foreign guest workers would be deported if terminated by the sponsoring employer.

“That’s another reason you can’t get my vote with that kind of stuff,” Wyden said. Wyden said he plans to work closely with labor on trade issues.

As for other issues, Wyden said he is supporting a forest health bill to thin forests to prevent forest fires, pledged to oppose Bush Administration proposals to do away with overtime pay, and said he wants to resist Bush Administration giveaways to corporations.

“It’s pretty clear that this far-right crowd has kind of rung the dinner bell,” Wyden said. “This is the most ideological crowd we’ve seen in the White House in a long time.”

Later that day, a delegation from NOLC and the Oregon AFL-CIO met with Democratic U.S. Representative David Wu, specifically to talk about the Chile and Singapore trade agreements. NOLC’s O’Connor said Wu listened, but didn’t make any commitments. She said she hopes human rights considerations will influence Wu’s votes, as they did in his decision to vote against permanent normal trade relations with China.

Two days after he breakfasted with labor leaders, Blumenauer came out to meet union fitters and electricians as they gathered on buses destined for a protest at Georgia-Pacific’s facility in Wauna, Oregon, which is using out-of-state, non-union, construction labor on a taxpayer-subsidized expansion.

Blumenauer told the Labor Press that he took away from his meetings with labor a sense that the state is in deep economic distress, and that many feel they’ve been betrayed.

“They want to feel that they’re not being taken for granted,” Blumenauer said.

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