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Many Leery of Trade-Offs With Free Trade

Economy: American consumers and workers, while acknowledging some benefits, want safeguards put in place.


Jeff Engels, a 42-year-old Seattle sailor, fears competition from vessels carrying low-paid foreign crew.

Lucille Moyer blames global competitive pressures for her unwanted membership in Silicon Valley's "throwaway work force."

Jackie Woll, a Los Angeles mother of three, worries about genetically altered organisms in her children's canned corn.

Like many Americans, this diverse trio is generally supportive of the global trading network that brings cheaper imported products to local stores while creating expanded markets for U.S. goods abroad. But they worry about the effect this increasingly borderless world is having on the air they breathe, the food they eat and their job security.

President Bush returns from Canada this week with the support of his Latin counterparts, but his toughest job lies ahead: convincing skeptical Americans that creating a giant trade zone stretching from Alaska to Argentina--the so-called Free Trade Area of the Americas--is in their best interests. Such a free-trade zone, by curbing tariffs and other trade barriers, would give consumers access to cheaper goods from other nations in the hemisphere.

And if history is any indicator, Bush's job will get even tougher as the slew of recent layoff notices by companies such as Honeywell International Inc., Cisco Systems and Citigroup Inc. start to work their way through the economy.

"A slowdown is the hardest time to push through trade liberalization because people think trade costs jobs," said Lori Kletzer, a labor economist at UC Santa Cruz.

Gaining public support is critical because the looming battle over trade in this country promises to be bitter. The president already is at odds with labor and environmental leaders over non-trade-related matters such as worker safety and wilderness preservation.

Congress is sharply divided over trade, with Republicans seeking fewer restrictions on global commerce and Democrats insisting on protections for worker rights and the environment.

Even free trade purists such as Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), the powerful chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, acknowledges that the Bush administration will have to address these grass-roots globalization worries if it wants to push through its ambitious trade plans. One measure being considered would impose penalties, rather than trade sanctions, on countries that are labor or environmental renegades.

The Bush agenda includes finalizing China's entry into the Geneva-based World Trade Organization, getting "fast-track" trade negotiating authority, completing bilateral trade agreements with Jordan, Vietnam and Singapore and winning support for the Free Trade Area, which is supposed to be finalized by 2005.

Trade supporters don't want a repeat of 1997 and 1998, when fierce opposition derailed then-President Clinton's hopes of getting fast-track authority. Such authority allows an administration to negotiate a trade pact and then have Congress vote on it without modification.

But winning the battle of public perception won't be easy.

Trade-friendly organizations such as the Manufacturers Alliance, the National Assn. of Manufacturers and the Business Roundtable have issued numerous reports recently extolling the benefits that expanded trade has brought to the U.S. economy.

From 1993 to 2000, at a time of explosive growth in trade, the U.S. created more than 20 million new jobs and increased economic output more than $1 trillion a year, according to the Center for the Study of American Business at Washington University in St. Louis.

But the benefits of trade have not been distributed evenly and activists like Michael McCormack have become more sophisticated in reaching out to Americans who wouldn't normally find themselves at an anti-trade rally.

A year ago, the 25-year-old Kansas City native returned to his hometown to start working with labor unions, church officials and student groups fighting everything from labor oppression to genetically modified foods.

In March, he was handed a powerful tool for organizing when GST Steel Co., a Kansas City firm, said it was closing its doors and laying off 750 workers because it couldn't compete with cheaper imported steel. He helped union leaders send out 19,000 fliers to an anti-Free Trade Area of the Americas rally last weekend to coincide with the Quebec summit. Similar events were held around the U.S., including an eclectic gathering of about 1,000 anti-globalization activists at the San Diego-Tijuana border.

"I don't think the answer is to become protectionist. But I think this is a way we can talk about how these ideas . . . affect our lives in ways we're not sure of," McCormack said. "We've got people in our organization whose fathers lost their jobs."

Job loss anxiety is widespread in Silicon Valley, where globally dependent technology firms have been battered by the collapse of tech stocks and the slowing of demand at home and abroad.

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