DAYTON, Ore. — With French barrels, Spanish corks and the rich volcanic soil covering these hills, Alex Sokol Blosser makes some of the world’s finest pinot noir at his family’s winery.
And the world knows it: Sokol Blosser sells a fifth of his wine abroad, in Canada, Europe and, increasingly, Asia.
He believes he will sell even more bottles of his Dundee Hills Pinot Noir should the complex international trade framework known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership win approval in Congress — emphasis on believes.
“I’m not going to lie to you. I don’t know what the hell is in the TPP, and I don’t know if anyone else knows what the hell’s in the TPP,” Sokol Blosser said. “But I’m making a leap of faith that it’s going to be good.”
Some in Congress are less convinced. The Senate is set to take a key procedural vote Tuesday on legislation granting President Obama enhanced authority to execute trade deals like the TPP. The Senate debate on the legislation, known as “fast track” authority, begins the final stages of a high-stakes Capitol Hill battle, with an even tougher fight waiting in the House.
Proponents of the trade agreement point to businesses like Blosser’s as the biggest winners if the trade deal is completed. And Oregon, with its boom in new-economy jobs, has come to occupy a special role in the debate about the benefits and perils of free trade. The state is deeply blue; six of its seven members in Congress are Democrats. And while fewer than 20 House Democrats currently support the fast-track legislation, three of them are from Oregon.
“We’re the face of the opportunity to grow more good-paying jobs,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D), who has represented the state in the Senate since 1996 and is one of the chief proponents of the trade deal. And the legislation that would pave the way for approval of the TPP was negotiated in large part by Wyden.
But Democrats elsewhere have been mostly unwilling to extend Obama the benefit of the doubt on trade, citing the secrecy and uncertainty surrounding the TPP and what they consider inadequate protections for American labor, environmental and legal standards.
Last week, Obama came here to the headquarters of Nike, a company that has become a symbol of race-to-the-bottom labor practices, to lay out his trade argument, and it was an argument aimed mostly at Democrats. In this setting, he felt free to lambaste members of his party for their “reflexive” opposition to the deal, without having to worry about offending many of the more than 2,000 people present.
“The truth is that companies that only care about low wages, they’ve already moved,” he said. “What this trade agreement would do is open the door to the higher-skilled, higher-wage jobs of the future, jobs that we excel at.”
The future of the American economy, in other words, can be seen in Oregon. Where the early-1990s debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement centered on Rust Belt manufacturing jobs, trade proponents this time are trying to steer the argument away from big industry. Instead, they are highlighting agricultural exporters and niche manufacturers.
“Oregon is sort of a microcosm of the opportunities,” Wyden said last week. “We are a big ag state, we’re a major tech state, we’re leaders in manufacturing — we’ve got it all. . . . We’re the face of the opportunity to grow more good-paying jobs.”
In large part, it is Oregon’s trade in non-commodity goods — the fine pinot noirs, the most fashionable sneakers, some of the most advanced microprocessors — that has made its businesses and politicians so sanguine about the trade deal.
Dick Sadler runs a fruit-packing plant in Dundee, a few miles from the Sokol Blosser winery in Yamhill County, shipping jars of Oregon blueberries to Japan. Unlike Sokol Blosser, Sadler does not have to take the TPP’s benefits purely on faith; he is on a federal advisory committee on agricultural trade and has received confidential briefings on the negotiations.
Sitting in his farmhouse surrounded by hazelnut trees, he said he has heard little from trade officials that gives him pause. “You can’t negotiate something as complex as this in public,” he said. The benefits will be more meaningful for small players like himself, he added, than for big exporters who can more readily deal with the current complications of international trade — the labeling rules and the ingredient certifications and so forth.
“The TPP is designed to give us structure to deal with all of that,” he said. “It’s hard to say what’s bad about it.”
So it goes for Puralytics, a 10-employee firm in Beaverton that makes nanotechnology-based water purifiers, mostly for the export market. Lowering double-digit tariffs and harmonizing product certifications under the TPP, President Mark Owen said, could get its lifesaving and life-easing SolarBags in more markets faster and cheaper.
And from Tigard, about 10 miles from the Nike campus, Stash Tea sells half a billion bags of all-natural tea a year — 20 percent of it abroad. Tariffs and trade rules, chief executive Tom Lisicki said, keep many of its flavored teas out of global markets.
Stash’s Orange Spice flavor, for instance, can’t be sold in Australia — the orange peel in it can’t get past customs, because of a ban on imported citrus. And ingredient and labeling restrictions mean that only a few of Stash’s 40-plus flavors can be sold in some countries.
The TPP — which would affect trade with Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam — would help with that, Lisicki said.
“Global trade is a reality — it’s not going to stop happening,” said Lisicki, who described himself as “pretty liberal” politically. “Yeah, we’re going to lose some jobs potentially, but that’s going to happen whether we trade or not.”
Oregon’s exporters, however liberal they might be, are up against a motivated coalition of trade opponents led by labor unions but also involving environmental, political and health-care activists in one of the nation’s most progressive states. Hundreds of protesters greeted Obama on Thursday outside a downtown Portland fundraiser with chants and signs with messages such as “Not Another NAFTA.”
But the more bitter feelings are reserved for the Oregon Democrats supporting Obama on the “fast track” legislation, especially Wyden.
“He goes to Labor Day picnics, he wears blue jeans, he talks about jobs, and then he votes like this?” said Laurie King, a retired teacher and a Jobs With Justice activist. “He thinks that he’s invulnerable, and I hope labor takes action.”
The only member of Oregon’s House delegation who opposes the trade bills is Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, a Democrat who represents the southwestern part of the state, including the college town and progressive hotbed of Eugene. (In the Senate, Democrat Jeff Merkley is also opposed.) In his 28 years in Congress, DeFazio has voted against every fast-track authorization and against every free-trade deal presented to lawmakers.
He ticks off the manufacturing jobs lost in the state in the past two decades: 400 positions at the International Paper mill in Gardiner, 160 at the Weyerhaeuser container-board plant in North Bend, 285 at Xerox call centers in North Bend and Coos Bay, and 100 at the Pendleton shirt factory.
According to federal statistics cited by fast-track opponents, at least 59,000 Oregon jobs have been lost because of trade in the past two decades.
“I’ve generally been lonely in the region, and I’ve been right,” DeFazio said, referring to the historic support in Oregon and Washington for trade deals. “Our states are dominated by three or four huge multinational corporations that have promoted these policies. . . . So they probably have a certain amount of clout when they bring this issue to others, and I’m certain that many of my colleagues believe these policies are good for this region and the country. They’re just wrong.”
Two of those Democratic House colleagues, Reps. Suzanne Bonamici and Kurt Schrader, waited until last week to announce their support for the fast-track legislation. Both say they remain undecided on the actual TPP deal pending the release of a final agreement. A third Democrat, Rep. Earl Blumenauer, announced his support earlier.
Bonamici rejected the suggestion that the mega-employers in her district — including Nike and Intel — made her decision fait accompli.
“I want to highlight people like Dick Sadler . . . and the potato growers and the vineyards and all of the business here,” she said. “This isn’t about the big businesses — it’s about all of the potential for trade to benefit our growing businesses here.”
During her previous campaigns, Bonamici walked a fine line on trade, endorsing some deals but not others.
She released an 800-word statement explaining her decision, how she carefully weighed its impacts on her district and her commitment to a “trade agreement done right.”
If it was a bid to tamp down union unrest over her fast-track endorsement, it may not succeed. Tom Chamberlain, president of the Oregon AFL-CIO, said that Democrats who support a trade agreement proceed at their own peril.
He wouldn’t say that Bonamici, Wyden or others would see reprisals, noting that his organization’s endorsement decisions are subject to a vote of member unions. But he said that “people are scratching their heads.”
“This is probably the most significant labor vote of their career,” Chamberlain said. “It’s going to be a tough hurdle to overcome.”
Bonamici, who won an endorsement from the labor-backed Working Families Party and sits on the House Education and Workforce Committee, said she considers herself both pro-trade and pro-labor.
“When I’ve called my friends in labor, they’ve appreciated that I’ve called them,” Bonamici said. “They don’t necessarily agree with me, but they appreciate that I’ve explained to them my reasoning.”
She added, “Some people understood more than others.”