White House

Farmers cool on Trump after TPP decision

Suddenly, North Carolina’s farmers are disappointed with President Donald Trump. And the labor movement’s not.

Trump’s decision to nix involvement in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the pending pact with 11 Pacific Rim nations, was no surprise. But he offered no alternative. The White House had no details to salve deeply worried North Carolina farmers, and others around the nation, who are concerned about the fate of their exports.

Yet organized labor, a bitter Trump opponent, got what it wanted.

The pact that President Barack Obama had hammered out was unlikely to win approval in Congress. Trump had promised on the campaign trail he’d pull out of the deal, and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton was opposed. The trade agreement would have drastically slashed international export tariffs and boosted North Carolina farm profits.

Without it, farmers want to know what’s next. “We agree with the president that we need to put America first. . . . (But), without trade, we begin to drown in many of these commodities,” said Larry Wooten, president of the North Carolina Farm Bureau.

North Carolina farmers want Trump to negotiate bilateral or multinational trade deals that will provide equal access to new international markets and give similar tax benefits to grease export wheels, Wooten said. And they have their eye on how Trump will handle immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally, a major labor pool for agricultural work in North Carolina and a group Trump has promised he’ll deport.

The promise of the Trans-Pacific Partnership looked particularly good for the state’s pork producers. Pork exports under the deal – North Carolina’s number one agricultural export – would have netted in-state farms nearly $139.5 million a year, largely by eliminating or lowering tariffs for pork sold to Asian countries, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Farmers and rural residents in North Carolina were key to Trump’s big victory in the swing state last year.

Union groups, on the other hand, campaigned hard in North Carolina for Clinton. The North Carolina AFL-CIO called Trump’s candidacy “toxic” and labeled him “manifestly unfit to be president.”

The union organizations wanted the Trans-Pacific Partnership scrapped, saying the pact would make it easier for U.S. companies to outsource jobs.

They’re still not crazy about Trump, of course, and were reluctant this week to give him much credit for his executive action on the trade deal.

North Carolina AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer MaryBe McMillan called the Trans-Pacific Partnership a “witch’s brew” of anti-labor and anti-worker trade policy. On Monday, she said she was glad Trump had acted to kill the deal but that union organizations had already successfully lobbied Congress to block it long before he’d taken office.

“I don’t think this is a sign that President Trump is now going to be for working people,” McMillan said. “What he really needs to do is raise minimum wage, keep Obamacare and allow states like North Carolina to expand Medicaid. . . . There’s so much that he could do to make sure working folks are not forgotten.”

The AFL-CIO had formed a coalition with others to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Among them were the Communication Workers of America, which represents call center employees, among others. In North Carolina, that group includes thousands of people working for companies like AT&T statewide and an American Airlines reservations call center in Cary.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership would have put American communication-sector jobs in jeopardy, said Cesar Leyva, a senior campaign lead for legislative liaison for the Communication Workers of America in North Carolina.

“We are struggling for jobs here in the U.S.,” he said. “Call centers are the new textile mills in North Carolina. . . . TPP was going to make it so easy to ship those jobs overseas.”

North Carolina voters are sensitive to international trade agreements. Past trade deals have contributed to the loss of nearly half the state’s textile and manufacturing jobs – more than 330,000 – since 1994, according to a Bureau of Labor statistical analysis by Public Citizen, a Washington-based watchdog group.

But those same trade deals open up new export options for farmers.

North Carolina farms rank high nationally in exports of pork, poultry, tobacco, cotton, Christmas trees, sweet potatoes and soybeans. Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that nearly half of North Carolina exports went to Trans-Pacific Partnership countries, where the pending deal would have reduced tariffs for U.S. businesses and farmers.

For example, with cotton – one of North Carolina’s top five agricultural exports – tariffs in Vietnam, currently at about 10 percent, would have been eliminated. Cotton tariffs would have been locked in at zero in Japan and Malaysia.

“Trade is important to North Carolina and American agriculture,” Wooten said. “And if there is action that harms American agriculture, that is not putting America first. . . . TPP, on balance, was positive for North Carolina agriculture.”

The North Carolina Pork Council said Monday that it was disappointed with Trump’s decision to withdraw from the trade deal.

“Pork products from North Carolina are consumed around the world, and we are missing out on a tremendous opportunity to increase our exports to Japan and other emerging markets in that rapidly growing region of the world,” said CEO Andy Curliss.

Beyond trade, Wooten said, North Carolina farmers are looking to Trump to address immigration policies in a way that won’t cut off a crucial workforce pipeline. U.S. Department of Labor statistics show that foreign workers were needed to fill more than 18,000 agricultural jobs in the state in 2015, and Wooten said thousands more “undocumented” immigrants worked on farms around North Carolina.

Farmers need Trump to adopt policies that will allow immigrants who are here illegally to “come out of the shadows,” Wooten said, without automatic mass deportations of workers critical to the agricultural industry.

Anna Douglas: 202-383-6012, @ADouglasNews

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