President Bush traveled to the heart of North Carolina's fast-shrinking textile manufacturing belt Friday to urge Congress to pass the Central American Free Trade Agreement, a deal that he said would stem the job losses that have plagued the industry.
Framed by plant workers seated behind him on a stage at Gaston College here, Bush said CAFTA would boost textile and other U.S. manufacturers by eliminating tariffs on many American goods imported by Central American nations. Also, he said, the measure would help stabilize the democratic governments in the region by increasing U.S. trade, which he said would make Central American workers more prosperous. "It's a pro-jobs bill," Bush said. "It's a pro-growth bill. It is a pro-democracy bill."
The Senate passed CAFTA last month, but the pact faces an uncertain future in the House. A majority of Democrats and many Republicans oppose the measure, saying that it would encourage more manufacturing jobs to leave the United States in pursuit of cheaper labor. Others worry that the agreement would not do enough to raise the standard of living of Central American workers, or ensure their rights on the job.
Critics compare CAFTA to the North American Free Trade Agreement, a deal passed in 1994, which eliminated many trade barriers between the United States, Mexico and Canada. Since the passage of that measure, the United States has lost half of its textile mill jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The impact of those job losses has been severe in North Carolina, which has lost 90,000 textile and apparel manufacturing jobs since 1994. The National Council of Textile Organizations says that 131 textile plants have closed in the state since 1997.
Some economists say that even if CAFTA does not exacerbate job losses, it would at a minimum further depress the wage growth of manufacturing workers in the United States. Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, said that the agreement would lower wages by "increasing competition with workers making 60 cents per hour and making it easier for employers to threaten to move when workers demand their share of rising productivity."
Textile industry lobbying organizations generally are divided on the measure. Rep. Sue Myrick (R-N.C.), who traveled here with Bush aboard Air Force One, is the only member of the state's House delegation who has publicly backed CAFTA.
The pact, which was signed by the United States a year ago, would eliminate or reduce trade barriers between the United States and five Central American countries -- Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua -- and the Dominican Republic.
Bush said the agreement would "level the playing field" for Central America and the United States, because most Central American goods enter this country duty-free while those nations often impose tariffs on U.S. imports. "This deal is a good deal for workers," Bush said.
Before his speech, Bush toured the nearby R.L. Stowe Mills Inc., a Belmont, N.C., manufacturer of yarn used primarily in home furnishings, apparel and automotive textiles. There, he looked at huge bales of cotton and the spinning machines that help transform it into fabric.
Earlier in the day, Bush met at the White House with President Antonio Saca of El Salvador, one of the parties to the free trade agreement.