June 21, 2018
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Keep jobs, fair trade in mind at the polls

By Steven Wight, Special to the BDN

It was a year and a half ago that they called a meeting to tell us that the factory was closing. I had worked at ZF Lemforder in Brewer for 22 years making auto suspension components for GM, Ford and Chrysler. Today those parts are being made in Toluca, Mexico.

After that meeting, people were stressed and angry. We didn’t understand why a plant that was profitable was being shut down. Everyone was worried what would happen next. Four hundred people used to work there and it was a huge part of the local economy. Today, all the machinery is gone and the plant is silenced.

We, the workers from Lemforder, are just some of the tens of thousands of Mainers who have lost their jobs when the plants went overseas in search of sweatshop labor and low environmental standards.

We were given the opportunity, if we wished, to travel to Mexico and further train our replacements, who had already been working in Maine. We were asked to help with the setup of the factory. My co-workers who went to Toluca had said that the conditions for the Mexican workers were very poor and far below the American standard. The pay-rate was very low and they would work long hours, every day of the week.

They also saw that the factory in Mexico doesn’t have to follow environmental standards. Our plant in Brewer had an excellent environmental record and had won awards for it.

Thanks to deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement, U.S. factories can move wherever they want, where they can pollute the environment, treat their workers poorly, and increase their overall profit.

Personally, it’s been very difficult losing my job and watching co-workers go through the same. Unlike many others, I was able to find temporary work at the Verso Mill in Bucksport. This was the only work I could find in the area, and many of my co-workers had the same issues. All we’ve been able to find is temporary work. Even then it’s longer hours for less pay, with no benefits. I’m missing many family events that I never would have had to miss before. I would hope nobody else had to go through what I went through with losing my job, but I know that isn’t true.

If we had a level playing field to compete on, the company wouldn’t have left. If workers in Mexico were paid a living wage and were treated with basic respect, and if the factories in Mexico had to follow environmental standards, we could still be up and running. Workers everywhere deserve respect and dignity. Maine workers can compete with the best in the world, but we need a fair chance.

It’s puzzling why the U.S. Congress continues to try to pass more of the same failed trade policies that have devastated our state. Since NAFTA passed in 1994, we have expanded the same policies to dozens of countries around the world. People are fed up with these unfair trade deals that encourage a race to the bottom.

Maine has lost over 31,000 manufacturing jobs since NAFTA passed. This is a huge loss for our state, and we need to address trade in order to address our job situation.

I am glad Rep. Mike Michaud wrote and submitted a bill to Congress called The TRADE Act to review and renegotiate our existing trade agreements. It calls for enforceable labor, environmental, product safety, and agricultural standards. It is exactly what we need for trade reform. I hope Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins will sign on as co-sponsors of the TRADE Act today.

Mainers know that in order to create and retain jobs in Maine, we have to fix trade. The TRADE Act is the way to do it. We’re far overdue for a new way forward.

Rep. Michaud’s opponent in this year’s election, Jason Levesque, has said he would vote for more NAFTA-style trade deals, including the pending South Korea Free Trade Agreement. He wants to continue the failed policies that have cost Maine so many jobs, including mine.

We’ll be worse off if we lose our fair trade champion and leader representing us. People all over the country look to him as the leader on trade reform. Maine is lucky to have such an advocate in D.C. We need elected officials who will fight for trade reform and fair trade. I hope voters will keep Maine jobs and fair trade in mind when they head to the polls on Nov. 2.

Steven Wight of Bucksport works at the Verso mill. He previously worked for ZF Lemforder.

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