WASHINGTON—The American worker, not Corporate America, will be the central focus of U.S. trade policy as far as the new Democratic majority of Congress is concerned.
That's no surprise, but it's a big shift. Since World War II, U.S. trade policy has sought to open markets to American exports through free-trade deals with countries large and small. That's made less expensive electronics, apparel and other foreign-made goods increasingly available to U.S. consumers.
But it's also cost a growing number of American workers jobs, pay increases and pensions. Manufacturers left Rust Belt states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania for China, and garment makers in the Carolinas shuttered factories and moved to Asia or Central America, lured by lower wages, fewer regulations and nonexistent trade unions.
"In the age of globalization and outsourcing, and with a vast underground labor pool from illegal immigration, the average American worker is seeing a different life and a troubling future," James Webb, the newly elected Democratic senator from Virginia, said in an opinion piece in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal.
As a result, many Democrats and some Republicans are demanding that free-trade agreements be fairer to American workers and businesses.
Democrats aren't going to abandon free-trade agreements, said New York Sen. Charles Schumer, who led the Democrats' senatorial campaign this fall. Instead, they'll demand that future agreements be "fairer and more in the interests of America as opposed to just American corporations."
There are limits to what the Democrats can do for American workers, though. Labor and environmental agreements are easier to negotiate than they are to enforce, and global forces largely determine where companies locate, jobs are created and trade flows.
But there are some areas where U.S. policy can make a difference, and politics is about perception as much as reality.
So what will Democrats do? The incoming chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Montana's Max Baucus, told McClatchy Newspapers that he'll seek to expand the safety net for American workers. He wants trade-adjustment assistance to include the services sector, where jobs have been lost to offshoring—the outsourcing of administrative, clerical, service and technology jobs overseas.
That would provide financial assistance to software designers, accountants, call-center operators and even architects who've lost their jobs to less expensive labor overseas.
Democrats have scant interest in trade deals with smaller countries that haven't produced great increases in U.S. exports or significantly improved working conditions.
"These are not friendly to workers in the countries that they're supposed to help and certainly not favorable to American labor," said Harry Reid, D-Nev., the incoming Senate majority leader.
Democrats also want the administration to invoke the provisions allowed under global trading rules to protect U.S. manufacturers from cheap imports and unfair competition. They want President Bush to bring a number of trade complaints against China to the World Trade Organization for keeping out U.S. exports.
"It's totally unacceptable. It's worse than unacceptable, it's offensive, and it costs us jobs," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., a champion of U.S. autoworkers.
Organized labor, a longtime Democratic ally, wants future trade deals to require that partners of the United States adopt enforceable International Labor Organization standards.
"We're in a new world here," said Thea Lee, the chief international economist for the AFL-CIO. "We are thrilled to have a majority that's friendly to the issues we're interested in."
Bush's "fast-track" trade promotion authority, which helps speed congressional approval of trade deals, will expire next Sept. 30. He'll likely have to agree to strengthen labor protections as part of any deal to maintain it.
"As a practical matter, whatever law reauthorizes fast-track authority should address trade adjustment assistance ... and will have to strengthen labor and environmental provisions in some way to win broader Democratic support," Baucus said.
Democrats aren't in a mood to compromise on trade, but they say they want to cooperate with the Bush administration.
"I don't want to be negative because perhaps the president has listened to the voter and perhaps wants to work with us instead of having gridlock," said Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., who'll head the Ways and Committee in the House of Representatives, which has jurisdiction over trade issues.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
Need to map