Buffalo Area Warily Eyes The Renegotiation Of NAFTA Global trade has cost the region plenty of manufacturing jobs over the years, but today a lot of companies have learned how to take advantage of the trade agreement.

Buffalo Area Warily Eyes The Renegotiation Of NAFTA

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Canada may have more to lose, but there are American businesses that are also worried about losing NAFTA. Across the country and the border, Jim Zarroli visited Buffalo, N.Y., where NAFTA has created jobs in areas that were economically depressed.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: At Speed Global Services, workers carry goods around the vast warehouse floor using motorized hand trucks. The company started out in trucking more than 70 years ago, carrying goods around western New York. As manufacturing slowed, it turned to warehousing. Today, Speed Global stores and transports products such as bras and lighting fixtures around North America, products made in China and Mexico. Company President Carl Savarino says it mostly works for Canadian companies.

CARL SAVARINO: We send now probably around eight trucks a day to Canada. And that's just going in the greater Toronto Area. It's the largest population in Canada. And it's 90 miles away. So there's a lot of goods moving back and forth.

ZARROLI: Savarino says it wouldn't be possible without NAFTA. Buffalo was once filled with great, hulking manufacturing plants. Richard Lipsitz of the Buffalo AFL-CIO says many of the jobs are now gone.

RICHARD LIPSITZ: We've lost hundreds of thousands of jobs in the industrial workforce. This was the third-largest manufacturing city in North America - Buffalo, N.Y., was.

ZARROLI: Lipsitz says many of the jobs fled to low-wage countries decades ago. And NAFTA accelerated the process. Buffalo has adjusted by taking advantage of its border location. NAFTA has connected Buffalo to a web of international commerce. John Manzella heads the World Trade Center Buffalo Niagara.

JOHN MANZELLA: You can be a buyer or a seller right here in western New York. You can jump in your car, visit a facility or a supplier or buyer in Hamilton, work out a deal and be back here for dinner. And that's the beauty of this relationship.

ZARROLI: And that's been a lifeline for companies such as Niagara Transformer. The company makes large devices that help regulate the flow of electricity. They take months to build. CEO John Darby says, before NAFTA, Canadian companies didn't like to do business with U.S. companies like his.

JOHN DARBY: Many customers would be worried, for example, that maybe the duties would change. Maybe the taxes would change at the border. So the economic calculation that they did perhaps might not be in effect when that transformer arrives at the border.

ZARROLI: NAFTA has changed that. Darby now has large Canadian energy companies and utilities as customers. He buys specialty steel from an Ontario mill, and he employs Canadians under a special visa program. Mechanical engineer Eric Pelzer (ph) commutes from Ontario every day.

ERIC PELZER: When I first started working over here, they all - you know, I said, well, yeah, I work in the States. They go, work in the States? How can you do that? But now everybody - there's so many more people that work over here. So they commute back and forth and work in different places.

ZARROLI: For companies such as Niagara Transformer, the prospect that NAFTA could be renegotiated is a huge concern. Fifty-six-year-old Craig Duncan has worked at one manufacturing plant after another. One company moved to Ohio. Another was sold. Today, Duncan operates a computerized machine that customizes steel parts at Niagara Transformer. He's been there 15 years.

CRAIG DUNCAN: I've been put out of work before by other factories. Hopefully, you know, we don't lose business because of change in trade agreements. Something like that would affect me directly.

ZARROLI: But the AFL-CIO's Richard Lipsitz sees rewriting NAFTA as a chance to reverse some of the worst trends in manufacturing employment.

LIPSITZ: We're concerned that the renegotiation of trade packages be done on a fair basis, not on the, quote, "free" basis. It isn't just a question of capital moving more easily, but it's also a question of labor rights.

ZARROLI: Lipsitz says this is an especially big problem with Mexico. After NAFTA, many of the best jobs fled south of the border, where pay is much lower and worker rights are limited. The question is whether those concerns can be addressed without also hurting the Canadian trade that keeps Buffalo going. Jim Zarroli, NPR News.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The NAFTA negotiations will continue into next year. And Canada is now talking tough and continues to eye other markets like China. Later in the show, we'll take a look at a planned pipeline expansion meant to increase Canada's oil exports to Asia.

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