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Clinton's free-trade advocacy is hitting labor where it lives

Competition helps both sides, she says. A Buffalo deal yielded a few jobs.

July 30, 2007|Peter Wallsten | Times Staff Writer

BUFFALO, N.Y. — To many labor unions and high-tech workers, the Indian giant Tata Consultancy Services is a serious threat -- a company that has helped move U.S. jobs to India while sending thousands of foreign workers on temporary visas to the United States.

So when Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) came to this struggling city to announce some good news, her choice of partners was something of a surprise.

Joining Tata Consultancy's chief executive at a downtown hotel, Clinton announced that the company would open a software development office in Buffalo and form a research partnership with a local university. Tata told a newspaper that it might hire as many as 200 people.

The 2003 announcement had clear benefits for the senator and the company: Tata received good press, and Clinton burnished her credentials as a champion for New York's depressed upstate region.

But less noticed was how the event signaled that Clinton, who portrays herself as a fighter for American workers, had aligned herself with Indian American business leaders and Indian companies feared by the labor movement.

Now, as Clinton runs for president, that signal is echoing loudly.

Clinton is successfully wooing wealthy Indian Americans, many of them business leaders with close ties to their native country and an interest in protecting outsourcing laws and expanding access to worker visas. Her campaign has held three fundraisers in the Indian American community recently, one of which raised close to $3 million, its sponsor told an Indian news organization.

But in Buffalo, the fruits of the Tata deal have been hard to find. The company, which called the arrangement Clinton's "brainchild," says "about 10" employees work here. Tata says most of the new employees were hired from around Buffalo. It declines to say whether any of the new jobs are held by foreigners, who make up 90% of Tata's 10,000-employee workforce in the United States.

As for the research deal with the state university that Clinton announced, school administrators say that three attempts to win government grants with Tata for health-oriented research were unsuccessful and that no projects are imminent.

The Tata deal underscores Clinton's bind as she attempts to lead a Democratic Party that is turning away from the free-trade policies of her husband's administration in the 1990s and is becoming more skeptical of trade deals and temporary-worker visas.

Like many businesses and economists, Clinton says that the United States benefits by admitting high-tech workers from abroad. She backs proposals to increase the number of temporary visas for skilled foreigners.

The Tata deal shows the difficulty of proving concrete benefits to U.S. workers from the visa system. Since 2003, the year its Buffalo office opened, Tata and its affiliates have sought permission to bring more than 1,600 foreign high-tech workers to the state, including at least 495 to the upstate region and 45 to Buffalo, according to government data. Tata has brought additional workers into the country under a second visa program whose numbers have not been disclosed.

Some U.S. worker organizations say Clinton cannot claim to support American workers if she is also helping Indian outsourcing companies and proposing more worker visas.

"It's just two-faced," said John Miano, founder of the Programmers Guild, one of several high-tech worker organizations that have sprung up as outsourcing has expanded. "We see her undermining U.S. workers and helping the offshoring business, and then she comes back to the U.S. and says, 'I'm concerned about your pain.' "

Among Indian American activists, Clinton's work with Tata has been seen as a sign of her independence from outsourcing skeptics within her party -- and a break from the Democrats' 2004 presidential nominee, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, who lambasted "Benedict Arnold CEOs" for shipping jobs overseas.

The main lobbying organization for the Indian-American community, USINPAC, cites the Tata deal as one of Clinton's top three achievements as a senator -- and evidence of a turnabout, in its view, from her past criticism of outsourcing. "Even though she was against outsourcing at the beginning of her political career," the USINPAC website says, "she has since changed her position and now maintains that offshoring brings as much economic value to the United States as to the country where services are outsourced, especially India."

Clinton regularly reinforces that view. When CNN anchorman Lou Dobbs, an outsourcing critic, pressed her on the Tata deal in 2004, Clinton responded: "Well, of course I know that they outsource jobs, that they've actually brought jobs to Buffalo. They've created 10 jobs in Buffalo and have told me and the Buffalo community that they intend to be a source of new jobs in the area, because, you know, outsourcing does work both ways."

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