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Voters Differ on NAFTA Issue

Thursday, February 28, 2008 at 5:00 AM

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The democratic contenders for President have traded barbs this week over NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. Campaigns for New York Senator Hillary Clinton and Illinois Senator Barack Obama have sent out mailers to Ohio voters about who has been opposed to the trade agreement longer. Trade agreements are a big issue in Ohio where thousands of manufacturing jobs have been lost. ideastream's®: Mhari Saito reports.

Attend rallies in Ohio these days and you hear a common theme:

Hillary Clinton: Let’s get real about NAFTA. It simply isn’t working for all Americans. So I’m not just going to talk about wha’ts wrong with NAFTA. I’m going to fix it and I’ve got a four-part plan to do exactly that.

Barack Obama: If you’re ready for change, we can go ahead and say to the companies we’re taking away your tax breaks if you ship jobs overseas. We’re going to give those tax breaks to companies that invest right here in Youngstown, right here in Ohio.

Barack Obama claims more than 50 thousand Ohio jobs and a million American jobs have been lost because of NAFTA.  The US Trade Representative says the United States gained 25 million jobs since NAFTA went into effect in 1994. Still, in Ohio manufacturing has taken a huge hit. So, as you can imagine, NAFTA and free trade agreements in general aren’t very popular among union card carrying Democrats. Paul Beck is a political scientist at Ohio State.

Paul Beck: That particular group, and it’s a very large group, is one that both candidates are courting very assiduously and one understands why because they could be the pivotal group within the Ohio electorate.

So, the anti-NAFTA rhetoric is heating up. It’s even more pointed because Clinton’s husband, Bill, helped push NAFTA through in 1993. The Obama campaign recently sent out a mailer claiming Hillary Clinton once supported NAFTA. It’s a claim the Clinton campaign rejects, but worker Eugene Jordan is paying close attention. His union, Service Employees International, has endorsed Obama.

Eugene Jordan: It was her husband Bill that put that trade in place. So I can’t see where she going to change nothing. I mean, it’s the same old politics.

Retired steel worker Heather Boli was laid off from Timken, a maker of machine bearings, not long after NAFTA took effect in 1994. She says she’s heard politicians make promises before.

Heather Boli: They say a lot of things to get elected..and y’know I was a Bush supporter and he didn’t to turn out to do a lot of what he said either. It’s a very hard decision. I’m really struggling with it.

The Obama and Clinton proposals on trade aren’t all that different, says Case Western Reserve economist Sue Helper. Both candidates would let people sue if a company didn’t live up to labor and anti-pollution laws in other countries.

Sue Helper: If we can change the trade agreements so that it’s less attractive to compete on the basis of low wages, and sweat shops and poor environmental conditions that benefits both workers here in US and it also benefits the workers in other countries.

But workers like Matt Hulett think that’s not realistic. The 29-year-old’s last day of work at the Hoover plant in North Canton was last Friday. Last year a Hong Kong-based company bought Hoover. Then it moved jobs to Texas and Mexico and closed the 100-year-old plant. Hulett thinks the candidates are full of talk.

Matt Hulett: There’s a lot they can do about it but I think they dug a hole deep enough that we can’t even get out of it.

Hulett doesn’t believe politicians will change trade agreements that help companies compete globally, even at the expense of American jobs.

Matt Hulett: This country is still great. I wouldn’t want to be born anywhere else, but the point is I look around and it’s like don’t tell me what I want to hear. Show me. Straight up just tell me, ‘It’s going to be hard at first but if everybody just helps and pulls together we can do it.’

Hulett hasn’t made up his mind who to vote for yet. He might not vote for anybody this time. He’s pretty busy, trying to find a new job. Mhari Saito, 90.3. 

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Government/Politics

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