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Antitrade Din Grows

Democratic presidential candidates Sens. Barack Obama (D., Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D., N.Y.) have broadened their opposition to free trade in...

WASHINGTON — Democratic presidential candidates Sens. Barack Obama (D., Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D., N.Y.) have broadened their opposition to free trade in speeches before the AFL-CIO in Pennsylvania.

Obama and Clinton reached beyond their calls for reforming the 14-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement as they campaign for the Pennsylvania primary on April 22.

Clinton, who has urged a “time-out” on all new trade agreements and a review of existing pacts, told union members Tuesday that she would “get tough on China.”

“They manipulate their currency, they give illegal subsidies, they abuse workers’ rights and what do we get in return?” Clinton asked rhetorically. “Tainted fish, lead-laced toys and poisoned pet food and polluted pharmaceuticals. That is a bad deal for America. When I’m president, China will be a trade partner, not a trade master.”

Clinton did not provide details of how she would change the U.S. trading relationship with China. However, she has supported legislation that would use trade remedy laws to impose higher duties on imported Chinese products if that country doesn’t reform its currency policy, which critics say gives Chinese firms unfair price advantages.

Clinton also unveiled a job creation plan on Wednesday that would eliminate tax incentives for companies that outsource jobs and provide $7 billion a year in new tax benefits and investments to help companies create higher paying jobs in the U.S.

Obama, who has also supported the same China legislation, told the AFL-CIO members Wednesday that he would “refuse to accept” trade deals like one pending with South Korea because they are “bad for American workers.”

“What I oppose — and what I have always opposed — are trade deals that put the interests of multinational corporations ahead of the interests of American workers, like NAFTA and CAFTA [Central America Free Trade Agreement] and permanent normal trade relations with China.”

Obama said his opposition to a pending deal with Colombia is based on the assassinations of trade unionists that he said will “make a mockery of the very labor protections that we have insisted be included in these kinds of agreements.”

Labor officials have been encouraged by the deeper debate on trade between the Democratic candidates, but they remain highly critical of the pro-free trade stance of Arizona Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee.

“I think [Clinton and Obama] both have staked out pretty strong positions on a variety of trade issues, particularly on the free trade agreements and on China,” said Thea Lee, policy director at the AFL-CIO. “Because they have been so concrete and detailed, I do think this will have more weight [if one of them wins the White House] than in the past when glancing references were made to trade issues and the candidates weren’t pinned down.”

Lee asserted that McCain’s trade position will not serve him well in battleground states, such as Pennsylvania, which have lost hundreds of thousands of jobs, partly because of international trade.

“I think it’s a huge liability for McCain,” Lee said. “His position rings very hollow for our members and…it will be a hard sell.”