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In Ohio, NAFTA Means More Than Trade

CLEVELAND — On the shore of Lake Erie, nestled between Cleveland Browns Stadium and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, stands a lone wind turbine.

The graceful kinetic structure was installed in 2006, a project of the Great Lakes Science Center. But since then, it has taken on iconic status, suggesting a future of energy independence and — perhaps more important in this struggling industrial region — a pathway to jobs that can’t be shipped overseas.

The link between jobs and trade is evoked often here. Some 220,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost in Ohio since 2000, and politicians and voters alike place the blame on foreign trade — especially the North American Free Trade Agreement, which took effect in 1994.

The shift, Long said, means his equipment isn’t made as well as it used to be, and friends and neighbors have lost their jobs, even while the wealthy continue to thrive. “The gap is getting huge,” he said.

It’s a persistent theme Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) have hit hard as they campaign here ahead of Tuesday’s primary. They both vow to renegotiate NAFTA and reshape the economy to improve the lives of working families, while ending the preferred treatment that corporate America and the wealthy have received under President George W. Bush.

But the politics of trade presents potential pitfalls, both in the limits to what a future president could accomplish in an era of globalization and the very different ways the issue affects different parts of the U.S. At the same, NAFTA has come to symbolize many ills, not all of them explained by the trade deal between the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

“NAFTA has become this kind of toxic term,” said James K. Galbraith, a professor of economics and government at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin. “Nobody who is in the political sphere is going to do anything other than use it for what it has come to mean: economic distress, economic neglect and de-industrialization.”

Clinton and Obama have treaded carefully, volleying over who has been the bigger critic of NAFTA, while also speaking about job training, lowering the costs of education, changing tax policy and other broad economic goals. The need to blend criticism of the trade deal with other themes has been highlighted by the candidates’ appearances in Texas, which will also hold its Democratic primary on Tuesday.

“NAFTA isn’t nearly the issue in Texas that it is in Ohio,” said Galbraith. “It’s much more obvious here that prosperity in Mexico is good for the border regions.”

As MSNBC reported this week,

While she has criticized NAFTA in Ohio, Clinton has made more nuanced statements in Texas, saying she intends to fine-tune the agreement to limit its downside.

In an an interview Monday with NBC affiliate KRIS of Corpus Christi, Clinton said NAFTA had “helped a lot of people” in Texas while hurting workers in some other parts of the country.

“We’ve got to take a hard look at it,” she said. “We’ve got to have a better-balanced approach so we get the advantages out of increased trade without undermining the American middle class and leading to the loss of jobs.”

Pressed by Canadian journalists on Friday to describe exactly what changes Clinton would like to see to the trade deal, Howard Wolfson, her communications director, declined to offer any specifics. “Certainly this is an issue that we’ll want to work with our allies to the south and to the north, two of our most important allies, to ensure that deals can be struck that provide a win-win scenario for everyone,” Wolfson said.

For his part, Obama has at times tried to look beyond NAFTA, to focus on how he would tackle future trade agreements, making sure they protect labor and environmental standards.

Obama’s campaign on Friday denied fresh reports from CTV, a Canadian television network, that a senior Obama advisor had called the Canadian embassy to reassure it that when the presidential hopeful talks about opting out of NAFTA, it “was just campaign rhetoric not to be taken seriously.”

“The story is just not true,” David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager, told reporters Friday.

During a campaign appearance Thursday in Houston, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the presumptive Republican nominee, accused the Democratic candidates of striking a protectionist tone. “Anyone who studies history understands that every time this country or other nations in the world have practiced protectionism, they’ve paid a very heavy price for it," McCain said.

But Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who made criticism of NAFTA a centerpiece of his successful 2006 election campaign, said Democrats can be effective in criticizing trade deals, and not just in states like Ohio and Michigan that have seen sharp declines in the manufacturing sector.

“I think these issues will sell everywhere, because everywhere, wages are stagnant,” Brown said. “Some places have lost more manufacturing jobs than others, but everywhere wages are stagnant.” With anxiety high among the middle class, Brown said a populist message, “whether you talk trade or infrastructure or alternative energy, or however we rebuild the middle class, is going to take.”

The opportunities that alternative energy may provide – exemplified so starkly by the wind turbine – has taken hold here. Local officials are studying the possibility of establishing a “hub” for a new wind turbine industry, with hopes of developing new technology, and creating new jobs, around it.

“There’s a lot of potential in Northeast Ohio for alternative energy,” said Harriet Applegate, executive secretary of the Cleveland-area AFL-CIO, which has 120,000 members.

Applegate spoke from her busy office as volunteers stuffed envelopes, rallying to the support of Dennis Kucinich — the Democratic House member, former Cleveland mayor and two-time presidential candidate – who faces a primary challenge on Tuesday. She said that as manufacturing jobs have left the region, the workers who held those positions have been forced into new kinds of work like the “dog-eat-dog world of small business, and high-risk start-ups,” which usually offer lower wages and don’t employ large numbers of workers.

George Coulter, who works on economic development at the Center for Community Solutions, a Cleveland research group, agreed. “We don’t see the types of occupations that can take the place of the wages these workers had in steel industry careers,” he said.

Coulter called for greater investment in what he called “middle jobs” – those that require more than a high-school education, but less than a four-year college degree, like truck drivers, health-care workers, carpenters and auto mechanics. “We’ve got to look at new industries and innovation,” Coulter said. “But also at this middle level of jobs, that tend to be offshore-proof.”

Rob Scott, a senior international economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank in Washington, said tougher labor and environmental standards attached to NAFTA, as Clinton and Obama have proposed, would be an important first step to make sure globalization does not lead to a "race to the bottom."

But, Scott added, "We can do much more to help Mexico." Pushing for higher wages and better jobs in Mexico, and providing development aid for education and infrastructure, would boost Mexico’s demand for US goods and reduce the outflow of low-paid workers from Mexico to the US. "We’ve got to be willing to make it worth their while to bring up their labor standards," he said.

Scott added that the U.S. must also "invest in programs that are going to help workers in Ohio." He said training workers for new jobs — in fields like insulating buildings and installing geothermal systems — is essential, as is investing in new technologies to help create those jobs.

Galbraith said it is important to separate the problems with some trade deals from the underlying troubles of the manufacturing base of a place like Youngstown, Ohio, another steel town hit hard by job losses and other shifts.

“What will solve the problems of Youngstown, Ohio,” Galbraith said, “is an urban redevelopment program that rebuilds the infrastructure and paves the way, literally, for these communities to become different kinds of economies.”

For now, he said, NAFTA has become a symbol of the need to do that. “The right approach is for politicians to use the symbol and suffuse it with the meaning of some new policy program.”

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