South Korea free-trade deal opposed by AFL-CIO, Steelworkers, other unions

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 9, 2010; 8:15 PM

The proposed U.S.-South Korea free-trade deal drew fire from major unions Thursday, disrupting the Obama administration's hope for building a broad consensus behind its first free-trade pact.

The AFL-CIO, the United Steelworkers, the International Association of Machinists and the Communications Workers of America all said they would oppose the deal when it comes before Congress next year, arguing that it will drain U.S. manufacturing jobs and does not include worker and other protections unions had hoped President Obama would demand.

The South Korea deal was originally negotiated by the George W. Bush administration. While Obama's team won several concessions to help, in particular, the automotive industry, the unions on Thursday said they had expected a broader rewriting of the agreement.

"We do not need to inflict further damage to our manufacturing sector and the lives and livelihoods of our workers to prove the strength of our alliance" with South Korea, the United Steelworkers said in a statement. "We have concluded that, while improved, it still does not merit USW support, and we will oppose its passage."

Labor opposition is not uniform: the United Auto Workers, which along with automakers such as Ford Motor Co. was closely involved in the final negotiations over the agreement, has endorsed it. And officials with the United Food and Commercial Workers union have supported it for lowering agricultural tariffs and probably boosting sales of U.S. meat and other foods.

White House officials said the fact that labor may be divided does not detract from the fact that the agreement has garnered key endorsements.

The agreement with South Korea "grows the economy and supports jobs here at home," said White House spokeswoman Amy Brundage. "The support of certain unions, including the United Auto Workers, plus Ford Motor Company, Democrats and Republicans, and a broad group of business leaders, has shown [the president] made the right choice" in accepting the agreement.

The union opposition announced Thursday continues an unusual week for Obama in which he has won praise from the business community for his tax and trade positions while facing criticism from traditional supporters.

Boeing chief executive James McNerney Jr., who is chairing an Obama-appointed export panel, said the South Korea agreement was a sign that the administration was "stepping up" on trade despite the political risks at a time of high unemployment and concern about the loss of manufacturing jobs overseas.

The South Korea deal "is not an easy putt politically" for the president, McNerney said Thursday at a forum on U.S. exports at the American Enterprise Institute.

Other trade agreements struck by the Bush administration, with Colombia and Panama, are awaiting congressional ratification, and the administration is in talks over a possible multilateral pact with several Pacific countries.

The South Korea agreement, however, could serve as a bellwether of trade politics in the new Congress, with a Republican majority in the House, a presidential campaign on the horizon and deep interest in supporting one of the United States' main Asian allies.

The administration has focused its economic policy on doubling exports over the next five years, and advocates such as McNerney, as well as outside analysts, argue it may be hard to do without a major push to open markets with free-trade deals.

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