HOUSE PANEL ON NAFTA HEARS MAKERS’ PRAISE, LABOR’S GRIPES

Byline: Joyce Barrett

WASHINGTON — The North American Free Trade Agreement was endorsed last week by the American Apparel Manufacturers Association and the American Textile Manufacturers Institute, as a House panel reviewed the impact of the trade pact.
Organized labor, however, spoke out against NAFTA, and the hearing last Thursday before the House trade subcommittee quickly became a debate as to whether NAFTA should be expanded in Latin America. This is critical; Congress is facing a request from President Clinton for fast-track negotiating authority to develop free-trade pacts with other countries.
Larry Martin, president of the AAMA, said that for every 15 apparel jobs created in the U.S. in recent years, 100 have been created in the Caribbean and Mexico.
However, that’s good news, he said, because otherwise the jobs would have gone to the Far East and products made there would have used Asian fabric instead of U.S. goods.
Addressing the downward trend in U.S. apparel employment, Martin said many jobs have gone offshore because U.S. wages aren’t competitive with lower ones in developing countries.
He also said some manufacturers have reported problems hiring qualified workers.
Martin noted that without the benefits of NAFTA, apparel production in Central America and the Caribbean has not grown as rapidly as it has in Mexico, and that’s a reason to expand NAFTA-like benefits to the region. To boost the small countries, Martin suggested a parity plan be included in the negotiating authority for Clinton. The parity plan, which was knocked out of the balanced budget bill passed this summer, is expected to emerge in Congress this week under the sponsorship of William Roth Jr. (R., Del.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
Clinton is expected to send to Capitol Hill this week his request for fast-track authority, which permits the administration to negotiate trade agreements Congress cannot amend. Treaties negotiated under fast track can only be approved or denied by Congress, according to a strict timetable.
Testimony submitted by the ATMI also was positive about NAFTA, noting textile exports to NAFTA partners increased $1.3 billion, or 55 percent, from 1993 through June 1997. Canada and Mexico now account for 46 percent of total U.S. textile exports and 60 percent of the increase in textile exports recorded since 1993, ATMI’s statement said.
“NAFTA is the model of what a trade agreement should be: fair, balanced and reciprocal,” the ATMI testimony said. “By any measure, NAFTA has provided significant benefits for the U.S. textile industry.”
On the other side of the equation, Jay Mazur, president of UNITE, said that for “workers in the United States, Mexico and Canada, NAFTA has been a failure.” The agreement has cost the U.S. textile and apparel jobs and has forced down wages, Mazur said. And the pact does not adequately address workers’ rights to strike, organize and freely associate, he said.
Mazur urged Congress to fix NAFTA before considering the administration’s request to expand it. “NAFTA was not drafted with workers’ interests in mind,” he said.
On Capitol Hill, opponents of NAFTA and Clinton’s quest to expand it sponsored what they described as a “teach-in” to present their case against the proposals. The two-hour event was sponsored by House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt (D., Mo.) and Rep. David Bonior (D., Mich.), another member of House Democratic leadership.
In addition to hearing from leaders of organized labor, the assembly of Congressional staffers and about 40 members of UNITE heard from two garment workers, who talked about jobs going to Mexico.

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