WASHINGTON — Manufacturing and labor groups sought to raise the level of the trade debate in the presidential campaign on Tuesday, urging the candidates to focus on imbalances with China and highlighting trade-related job losses in Pennsylvania.
Citing a net decline of 207,300 manufacturing jobs in Pennsylvania since 2001, the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition, a textile industry lobby group, released a report on the state’s manufacturing sector Tuesday. The coalition and labor officials urged lawmakers seeking reelection and presidential candidates to provide more details on how they would reshape the Bush administration’s trade policies.
The fresh calls for a broader trade debate come as campaigning intensifies for Pennsylvania’s Democratic presidential primary on April 22. The stakes are high for Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton in their neck-and-neck race for the nomination.
So far, the North American Free Trade Agreement, passed 14 years ago when Bill Clinton was in the White House, has overshadowed any discussion of trade relations with China. The U.S. trade deficit with China reached a record $256 billion last year.
Hillary Clinton and Obama have emphasized the importance of renegotiating or amending NAFTA to incorporate stronger labor and environmental provisions.
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, continues to champion free trade agreements, saying that lost jobs will not come back and the U.S. needs to retrain its workforce.
Obama and Clinton have broadened their positions on trade as they stump through Pennsylvania, criticizing China’s currency practices and tainted imports. Both support 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 claim gives Chinese firms unfair price advantages.
The Democratic candidates also have increased their criticism of a pending trade deal with Colombia that President Bush sent to Congress for a vote on Tuesday. Clinton reiterated her opposition, two days after her chief strategist, Mark Penn, stepped down because of his public relations firm’s involvement in lobbying for the trade deal on behalf of the Colombian government. Obama also voiced his opposition to the trade accord.
Bob Baugh, director of industrial unions for the AFL-CIO, said labor groups are pushing members of Congress and the candidates to support more punitive legislation that defines currency manipulation as a subsidy, which would ease the way for U.S. companies to seek more direct relief through punitive tariffs.
“Half of our manufactured-goods deficit last year was with China alone,” Baugh said. “There is an issue here that we think the candidates are not addressing clearly.”
He called on them to explain how they will “repair our trade regime with this nation” and how they will address “illegal activity,” such as subsidies, currency manipulation and intellectual property rights violations.
“We want an honest discussion in the debate regarding China in regard to its currency problems, state-sponsored subsidies and blatant theft of intellectual property rights,” said Auggie Tantillo, executive director of AMTAC. “We want a candidate to come out and say, ‘We are going to look at reforms that institute a pragmatic reciprocal program that ensures U.S. manufacturers have a chance to compete fairly, both internationally and here at home.'”