Will New Free Trade Agreements Downsize U.S. Jobs?

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Congress approved free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama Wednesday night. They represent the biggest trade pacts since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement. President Obama has promised to sign them into law. Supporters say the pacts will open new markets to U.S. companies, but others say they will hurt industries already weakened by imports.


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Think of this next report as a follow-up to one of the great economic debates of the 1990s. The North America Free Trade Agreement freed up U.S. trade with Mexico and Canada. It both created and destroyed many jobs.

MONTAGNE: Last night, after years of debate, Congress approved three more free trade agreements. President Obama had been calling for lawmakers to pass the deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.

INSKEEP: His signature will not end the debate over the deals' effect, as NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: The agreements will sweep away most of the tariffs and trade barriers that now limit the amount of business U.S. companies can do in the countries. Republican Congressman, Pete Roskam, of Illinois.

REPRESENTATIVE PETE ROSKAM: This says game on. The U.S. can compete. Give us a fair playing field and game on.

ZARROLI: The South Korean market is especially tantalizing to many businesses. Drug makers, aviation companies, and food exporters are all eager to sell products there. Bill Donald is head of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. Donald says, until now, beef exported into Korea was slapped with a 40 percent tariff. Now he says it will be much more competitive.

BILL DONALD: So imagine, if you will, putting your product on sale for 40 percent off and you get to keep the same amount of money. That definitely builds demand, puts more money in producers' pockets.

ZARROLI: The passage of the agreements yesterday was held up by many legislators as proof that a bitterly divided Congress could still agree on something. Not that there wasn't plenty of opposition. Labor groups were enraged about the agreement with Colombia, which has a record of unsolved murders of union organizers.

But much of the opposition centered around jobs. At a time when the U.S. unemployment rate is above nine percent, free trade proved to be an especially tough sell in some quarters.

Todd Tucker, research director for Public Citizen, said a fresh wave of imports from Korea will devastate industries like textiles that have already lost huge numbers of jobs.

TODD TUCKER: Those jobs, sort of those higher end textile jobs, are put at risk by this agreement which is why a lot of the businesses - both small and medium businesses - in textile and apparel have been fighting this agreement.

ZARROLI: To answer the critics, the White House spent several years rewriting parts of the agreements and the delays generated plenty of criticism by Republicans eager to see them passed. President Obama insisted Congress expand a federal program that provides aid and retraining to displaced workers. The administration also argued that the agreements would ultimately create jobs, 70,000 in the case of South Korea alone.

But opponents said they had heard such promises before. Democrat Marcy Kaptur of Ohio said the United States has been opening its markets for a quarter century and has little to show for it but a lot of lost jobs.

REPRESENTATIVE MARCY KAPTUR: We got a half a trillion dollar trade deficit. How many times do you have to be hit over the head before you say, you know what? This isn't working.

ZARROLI: But in the end, the opposition wasn't enough to defeat the pacts. Lawmakers were especially anxious to approve the agreements before today, when South Korea's president is expected to address Congress.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News.

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