Why I oppose CAFTA
The proposed accord does less to protect U.S. labor than previous trade agreements, and does little to address environmental standards in the Central American countries
By Barack Obama.
June 30, 2005
This week Congress will debate the Central American Free Trade Agreement.
I wish I could vote in favor of CAFTA. In the end, I believe that expanding trade and breaking down barriers between countries is good for our economy and for our security, for American consumers and American workers. CAFTA would benefit farmers here in Illinois as well as agricultural and manufacturing interests across the country.
We also shouldn't kid ourselves into believing that voting against trade agreements will stop globalization--especially ones like CAFTA, where the countries involved have combined economies one-sixth the size of Illinois'.
Globalization is not someone's political agenda. It is a technological revolution that is fundamentally changing the world's economy, producing winners and losers along the way. The question is not whether we can stop it, but how we respond to it. It's not whether we should protect our workers from competition, but what we can do to fully enable them to compete against workers all over the world.
So far, America has not effectively answered these questions and American workers are suffering as a result. I meet these workers all across Illinois, workers whose jobs moved to Mexico or China and are now competing with their own children for jobs that pay 7 bucks an hour. In town meetings and union halls, I've tried to tell these workers the truth--that these jobs aren't coming back, that globalization is here to stay and that they will have to train more and learn more to get the new jobs of tomorrow.
But when they wonder how they will get this training and this education, when they ask what they will do about their health-care bills and their lower wages and the general sense of financial insecurity that seems to grow with each passing day, I cannot look them in the eyes and tell them that their government is doing a single thing about these problems.
That is why I won't vote for CAFTA.
There are real problems in the agreement itself. It does less to protect labor than previous trade agreements, and does little to address enforcement of basic environmental standards in the Central American countries and the Dominican Republic. Moreover, there has been talk that, in order to get votes from legislators from sugar-producing states, the Bush administration may be preserving indefensible sugar subsidies that benefit a handful of wealthy growers and cripple Illinois candy manufacturers.
But the larger problem is what's missing from our prevailing policy on trade and globalization--namely, meaningful assistance for those who are not reaping its benefits and a plan to equip American workers with the skills and support they need to succeed in a 21st Century economy.
So far, almost all of our energy and almost all of these trade agreements are about making life easier for the winners of globalization, while we do nothing as life gets harder for American workers. In 2004, nearly 150,000 workers were certified as having lost their jobs due to trade and were thus eligible for Trade Adjustment Assistance--and this number doesn't even count service workers like janitors and cafeteria employees.
But this is about more than displaced workers. Our failure to respond to globalization is causing a race to the bottom that means lower wages and stingier health and retiree benefits for all Americans. It's causing a squeeze on middle-class families who are working harder but making even less and struggling to stay afloat in this new economy. As one Downstate worker told me during a recent visit, "It doesn't do me much good if I'm saving a dollar on a T-shirt at Wal-Mart, but don't have a job."
And so now we must choose. We must decide whether we will sit idly by and do nothing while American workers continue to lose out in this new world, or if we will act to build a community where, at the very least, everyone has a chance to work hard, get ahead and reach their dreams.
If we are to promote free and fair trade--and we should--then we must make a national commitment to prepare every child in America with the education they need to compete in the new economy; to provide retraining and wage insurance so even if you lose your job you can train for another; to make sure worker retraining helps people without getting them caught in bureaucracy; that it helps service workers as well as manufacturing workers and encourages people to re-enter the workforce as soon as possible.
We also need to figure out a way to tell workers that no matter where you work or how many times you switch jobs, you can take your health care and pension with you always, so you have the flexibility to move to a better job or start a new business.
We cannot expect to insulate ourselves from all the dislocations brought about by free trade, and most of the workers I meet don't expect Washington to do so. But we need a national commitment.
In America, we have always furthered the idea that everybody has a stake in this country and that everyone deserves a shot at opportunity.
The imbalance in this administration's policies, as reflected in the CAFTA debate, fails to provide American workers with their shot at opportunity. It's time we gave them that shot.
Barack Obama, a Democrat, is the junior senator representing Illinois
Copyright © 2005, Chicago Tribune
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