By  on December 22, 2008

WASHINGTON — Ron Kirk, President-elect Barack Obama’s pick for U.S. trade representative, doesn’t have much of a track record on trade, leaving many in the fashion industry wondering how he’ll approach key issues.

Obama announced the selection of Kirk, a former mayor of Dallas, to the cabinet post at a press conference in Chicago on Friday, along with nominating Rep. Hilda Solis (D., Calif.), a strong union supporter and advocate for workers’ rights, as secretary of labor. Both must be confirmed by the Senate.

“As mayor of Dallas, Ron helped steer one of the world’s largest economies,” Obama said. “He has seen the promise of trade, but also the pitfalls, and he knows there is nothing inconsistent about standing up for free trade and standing up for American workers.”

Kirk was the first African-American mayor of Dallas, serving in that position from 1995 until 2001. He is now a partner with Houston-based law firm Vinson & Elkins LLP.

Some of Kirk’s views on trade, such as his support of the North American Free Trade Agreement, appear to be at odds with Obama’s rhetoric on the campaign trail when he said he would consider renegotiating the trade pact between the U.S., Mexico and Canada. However, Obama later moderated his stance, saying he would bring the two countries to the table to discuss strengthening labor and environmental provisions. Kirk has also supported granting permanent normal trade relations with China.

“As a leader, negotiator and principled proponent of trade, Ron will help make sure that any agreements I sign as president protect the rights of all workers, promote the interests of all Americans and preserve the planet we all share,” said Obama.

As USTR, Kirk will oversee an agency of about 200 people with a budget of $40 million. He will carry out the president’s agenda, lead trade negotiations with foreign countries and enforce existing agreements, including filing unfair trade cases at the World Trade Organization where warranted.

Kirk will inherit outstanding issues with implications for the fashion industry that may have to be addressed early on, including: a case the U.S. filed on Friday against China at the WTO, alleging the Asian country provided illegal export subsidies for several industries, including textiles and apparel (see separate story); the elimination on Jan. 1 of quotas on textile and apparel imports from China; pending trade deals with Colombia and South Korea, and a moribund WTO global trade round that has limped along for the seven years without any breakthrough on a global tariff-dropping trade treaty.

Kirk will also appoint a chief textile negotiator, who is responsible for assisting in trade negotiations on industry-specific issues and works closely with importers and domestic textile producers.

Industry lobbyists said they were unsure how Kirk will craft trade policy.

“I know nothing about him,” said Erik Autor, vice president and international trade counsel at the National Retail Federation. “Maybe [Obama] was looking for somebody who didn’t have a track record on trade. When you are caught between pro-trade forces and protectionist forces, maybe that’s a logical choice to go with somebody you can present as neutral or middle of the road without an agenda.”

Auggie Tantillo, executive director of the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition, said Kirk’s appointment is somewhat “disconcerting,” although the jury is still out on how he will lead.

“The appointment is going to an individual that hasn’t been significantly involved in trade policy or trade issues,” said Tantillo. “It does give you some reason for concern. However, we also recognize that on the positive side, he may not be bringing a doctrinaire, theoretical viewpoint to the table on trade.”

Solis was elected to the House in 2000 and is a proponent of increasing the minimum wage, having spearheaded the effort in California as a state senator to raise the state’s minimum wage to $5.75 from $4.25 an hour in 1996, and supports the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill that would allow for a card-check system to organize a workplace instead of closet-ballot elections.

A labor-friendly pick, Solis, the daughter of a Mexican father and a Nicaraguan mother, has ties to sweatshop issues in the apparel industry. As a California state senator in 1995, she represented the city of El Monte, which was the center of one of the most egregious sweatshop abuse cases in the U.S. apparel industry.

Solis led hearings on the El Monte case, in which federal officials uncovered more than 70 Thai immigrants working in virtual slavery to sew clothing for several U.S. apparel brands. The case spawned a national movement against apparel sweatshop abuses headed by then-Labor Secretary Robert Reich in the Clinton administration.

“Hilda Solis has been an outspoken advocate for the rights of garment workers,” said Bruce Raynor, general president of UNITE HERE, pointing to her leadership in state government in California. “She understands the apparel industry and the plight of workers in this industry…and she will be a great advocate for our industry in preserving jobs in the U.S.”

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