BANGOR, Maine — When 450 workers are unemployed and uncertainty and economic hardship pervades an entire region, an American president should witness the devastation and sorrow firsthand.
This is the way members of the Maine Labor Council and the United Steelworkers said they felt Friday after a shutdown of the East Millinocket paper mill on April 1 left the Katahdin region workers they represent idle and under threat of permanent displacement, given mill owner threats to scrap the mills if another owner cannot be found.
The shutdown occurred after talks to purchase the mill and another in Millinocket that closed in 2008 fell through on April 8. Though Katahdin region and state officials continue to seek a new buyer for the mills, the economic hardship caused by the shutdown prompted members of the Maine Labor Council and the United Steelworkers to take aim at President Barack Obama and Maine’s congressional delegation.
A large part of the reason the East Millinocket mill was forced to close is free trade agreements like the North America Free Trade Act passed in 1994 and others that are pending with Panama, Columbia and South Korea, officials with the steelworkers union and the Maine Labor Council say.
“Before he moves forward with these trade deals, we call on President Obama to come and walk a mile in our shoes,” said Patrick Carleton, president of the Maine Labor Council, as he spoke to a crowd of around 30 who had gathered at the Ramada Inn to ask Obama and Maine’s congressional delegation to visit the towns across Maine affected by mill closures.
“These rigged trade deals have shut down mills like the ones in Millinocket and East Millinocket, in Jay and Ashland, yet Congress is considering more of the same failed policies,” he said.
Free trade agreements, such as NAFTA passed under President Bill Clinton, and the pending agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea negotiated under President George W. Bush, are said to bolster free market trade by reducing tariffs on U.S. exports, increasing opportunities for U.S. businesses and improving access to products in foreign markets, among other things.
But critics such as Carleton and many others involved in the U.S. manufacturing industry maintain that the agreements are unfair because they create an advantage for overseas manufacturers.
Critics say that such agreements create increased international competition, the offshoring of American jobs and in certain cases, artificial currency rates that permit countries such as China to sell exports cheaper.
“These trade agreements benefit American companies by letting them go overseas and exploit low-wage workers,” said Duane Lugdon, a United Steelworkers Union international statewide representative who also represented the 320 members at the East Millinocket mill. “It’s time to stop this stuff. It doesn’t make sense for American workers to be abused and lose their jobs as the result of such agreements.”
In 2010, the terms of the South Korea Free Trade Agreement were renegotiated, which led President Obama to hail it as a groundbreaking deal with the ability to eventually increase the U.S. gross domestic product by billions of dollars.
Members of The United Steelworkers Union recently drafted a resolution calling on Maine’s congressional delegation to take immediate action to oppose the pending trade agreements.
Republican U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins have yet to state their positions on the proposed agreement with South Korea, according to Emery Deabay, an associate with the United Steelworkers Union.
Lugdon said that the union has been in close contact with Maine’s senators and congressman in Washington, D.C., on the issue of free trade, something he said the group will continue to pursue until the state’s leaders take a position on the free trade agreements.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, a former employee of the East Millinocket mill, was on hand to show his support for the mill workers and to address those gathered in opposition to the pending trade deals.
“Mainers need jobs now, but these unfair trade deals do the exact opposite of creating jobs; these deals cost us jobs,” said Don McLaughlin, a former employee at the Millinocket mill. “I don’t know why Obama, Collins and Snowe would support these.”
Collins’ communications director, Kevin Kelley, on Friday said the senator visited Millinocket in February and spoke with many members of the community about the devastating impact of the mill’s potential closure.
On the subject of the upcoming trade agreements, Kelley said, “In deciding how to vote on any trade agreement, Senator Collins carefully assesses its potential impact on those employed in Maine’s manufacturing industries, agricultural and small business sectors. She also reviews the agreement’s environmental, labor, and human rights protections. Should the Panama, South Korea, or Colombia Free Trade Agreements come before the Senate, she would give them the same scrutiny.”