Thursday, April 19, 2007

The National Association of Manufacturers warned Congress yesterday that the trade group would not support pending free-trade agreements if they applied international labor standards to U.S. laws, which, NAM said, could pose a challenge to U.S. sovereignty.

Congressional Democrats are trying to toughen labor provisions of trade deals with Peru, Panama and Colombia. Their proposal would apply International Labor Organization standards, such as the right to organize and bans on forced or child labor, to U.S. labor laws.

“Subjecting our labor system to foreign challenge is simply not something to which we can agree,” NAM President John Engler wrote to House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat. “If that were the price of obtaining new trade agreements, we would not be able to be supportive.”

Mr. Engler said many U.S. labor laws, “though of very high quality, do not follow ILO standards.”

“Our federal and state labor laws contain provisions for health, safety, and good governance, as well as sovereign state choices on subjects like right-to-work laws, and provisions related to public sector employees that are contrary to ILO requirements.”

Mr. Engler noted that in Michigan, where he was governor, public employees are prohibited from striking.

He said that subjecting state laws to challenges by foreign nations would be unacceptable. He noted that Mexican unions sued North Carolina in 2005 under labor provisions in the North American Free Trade Agreement. The lawsuit was ultimately dismissed.

Mr. Rangel called the letter “a gross distortion of the facts” and said he was “astounded that NAM would go to such lengths to jeopardize the hard work of so many in Congress and the administration who are negotiating these issues.”

“There is nothing in the policy outline we’ve delivered or the discussions we’ve had to suggest for a minute that we would yield sovereignty,” he said.

The Ways and Means Committee pointed out what it called inaccuracies in the letter. The committee said the Democratic proposal would allow only governments to challenge compliance, unlike the Mexican union complaint. The panel said it is proposing challenges of labor issues to be valid only when trade is affected, so any limits on public employee strikes would not apply.

“If outside groups are serious in their desire to shape and support future trade policies, they need to understand that it does not help at all to issue press releases distorting the facts and misrepresenting the views of those negotiating the policy,” Mr. Rangel said.

William A. Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council, said House Democrats and Republicans are negotiating the trade agreement with the administration.

“That’s plenty,” he said. “I don’t think that adding additional parties into the negotiation is helpful.”

Thea Lee, policy director of the AFL-CIO, said, “NAM would rather have no trade agreement at all than one that asked the U.S. to live up to its international commitment to respect workers’ rights.”

“NAM and other business groups are perfectly comfortable subjecting our environmental rules, corporate tax system, and state gambling laws to foreign challenge, but somehow cannot accept that we might also be asked to honor our international commitment to respect our own workers’ human rights at the workplace,” she said.

The U.S. Business & Industry Council said NAM is taking “a sham position in a debate that is virtually irrelevant to the fortunes of America’s domestic manufacturing base.”

“Because they are unenforceable, whatever particular set of labor standards is used in new U.S. trade agreements will have no meaningful effect on the actual business conditions facing domestic manufacturers at home and abroad.

“Washington obviously lacks the manpower to monitor the literally millions of factories spread across the Third World, and U.S. trade partners are similarly incapable of tracking the American labor scene,” said Alan Tonelson, a research fellow at the organization.

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