Delegates from the world's trading nations won't meet until next month to consider new rules for international commerce, but already a preview of the kinds of arguments likely to erupt can be seen on Capitol Hill.
At issue is a White House-backed plan to grant new trade privileges to Africa and the Caribbean. American garment workers and many of their employers are up in arms over one part of the plan, now awaiting action in Congress, saying it will send thousands of U.S. jobs overseas and unfairly benefit multinational companies.
Meanwhile, a group of black ministers argues that the Africa bill demands too many concessions from countries supposedly being helped, and former South African president Nelson Mandela has weighed in against the measure.
So it goes in the trade wars, where such battles are fought again and again as protected industries feel the heat of low-cost foreign competition and international trading rules. With the world merging slowly into a single market, once-cosseted industries generally lose out, but not without a fight.
The bills now before Congress would lower or eliminate tariffs and quotas on garments and textiles entering the United States from the two regions. To qualify, the African countries would have to move to make their economies more open to trade and investment and control government spending.
Clinton administration officials portray the Africa measure as an overdue step to build on debt-relief initiatives announced last month for some of the world's poorest countries. The Caribbean part, they say, would give deserving neighbors some of the same benefits Mexico received from the North American Free Trade Agreement, which lowered trade barriers in a zone from Mexico to Canada.
"There is broad bipartisan support" for the new plan, President Clinton said at a recent dinner of the Democratic Leadership Council. "I hope and pray we will get that out of this session of Congress."
But a coalition of U.S. garment workers and many of the companies that employ them are trying to thwart Clinton's best hopes. Even without the program, "we're losing [8,000] and 10,000 garment jobs a month," said Seth Bodner, executive director of the National Knitwear and Sportswear Association, which represents about 200 companies. "Mexican apparel imports are going up and up."
The critics say the trade changes would unfairly benefit big manufacturers such as Fruit of the Loom Inc., which has already moved much of its garment work to Central American countries that stand to benefit from the plan. The legislation's tariff relief would make it even more attractive to shift jobs offshore, critics contend.
David L. Aaron, undersecretary of commerce for international trade, predicted minimal impact on jobs in the United States. Rather, the program might send to the Caribbean Basin jobs now in Mexico or Asia, another big source of textiles and garments, Aaron said.
Some of the program's supporters say that the reality of today's global economy is that labor-intensive sewing-machine jobs will go abroad. But the Senate version of the plan, they say, would help the United States keep the more desirable, higher-tech work of making fabric, because it would grant import benefits only to clothes made from U.S. fabrics.
"If you can marry U.S. textiles with low-cost labor for sewing . . . you can compete with Asia," said Ronald J. Sorini, a Fruit of the Loom senior vice president who deals with international issues. His company, which keeps major textile operations in the United States but has sent much garment work abroad, supports the Senate bill.
U.S. garment workers here see less threat from the Africa package, called the African Growth and Opportunity Act, because the garment and textile industry there is underdeveloped. Still, critics contend that Africa might become a staging ground for illegal "transshipments" of goods from third countries seeking to evade quotas that they have exhausted.
Much of the criticism of the Africa bill focuses on requirements that countries make major changes in their economies. The House version of the bill, for instance, calls for minimizing price controls there, removing investment restrictions and protecting intellectual property, steps that supporters say would help bring African nations into the world economy.
The program "offers a first step for American companies and other institutions to begin to look at Africa and treat Africa as a viable economic partner," said Lorenzo Bellamy, co-manager of the African Growth and Opportunity Act Coalition and a lobbyist for Chevron Corp.
But critics say these steps would doom some social programs in the countries and facilitate predatory investment by foreign companies.
A group of African American ministers last week praised television ads sponsored by the Citizens Trade Campaign, whose members include unions, environmentalists and consumer groups. The ads say the program would force African countries to "choose between the well-being of their people and trade with America." The ministers and the citizens group support an alternative bill called the Hope for Africa Act.