Kirk soothes on trade

The Obama administration is courting pro-labor Democrats with a new initiative aimed at softening resistance to free-trade agreements.

The trade enforcement initiative, announced by U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, focuses on policing labor violations by trading partners and is designed to appeal to unions that oppose trade deals negotiated by the Bush administration with Panama, Colombia and South Korea.

Obama would like to move the three deals eventually, but they have been put on cold ice because of opposition from House Democrats and the president’s desire that they not interfere with progress on healthcare reform and other big-ticket issues.

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Kirk’s speech was intended to show Democrats the administration takes their demands of better trade enforcement seriously.

“Our trading partners can sell their goods here. But in exchange, they must keep their end of our bargains,” Kirk said in prepared comments for his address at a steel plant in Pittsburgh. “I can tell you with no reservations: The Obama administration is both willing and able to enforce our trade agreements. American workers deserve no less.”

In choosing Pittsburgh as the site for the address, Kirk visited the home of the United Steelworkers, who are pressing the administration to punish Chinese subsidies by curbing imports from China.

The site also is notable because Pittsburgh in September will host world leaders attending the G20 summit, where President Obama will be under pressure to show the U.S. is not turning to protectionism amid a global recession.

Kirk’s address could also serve as a warm-up for a speech Obama is expected to give later this year in which he’ll lay out his thoughts on trade policy. Many think Obama will give that address during the G20 summit in Pittsburgh.

Foreign leaders and business groups were critical of “Buy American” provisions in the economic stimulus package, warning they could lead other countries to impose barriers to U.S. exports that could slow an economic recovery. They’ve also been worried by the reluctance of Congress to move forward with any of the bilateral trade deals negotiated by the Bush administration.

Kirk said his office would partner with other agencies to monitor and identify labor violations in trade agreements. He said the administration would not hesitate to litigate in the World Trade Organization or in other forums when violations are found.

He also said the U.S. would step up efforts to resolve labor issues with trading partners. For example, he said trade officials would work to ensure Peru implements labor protections for temporary workers and subcontractors that were included in a free trade agreement approved by Congress in 2007.

He also said the U.S. would promote international labor standards, singling out China. He said the administration would seek to engage Chinese officials on fundamental labor rights, enforcement of China’s labor laws and other key labor-related issues.

Obama will face a tough decision later this summer in the form of a trade petition from the Steelworkers union. They’ve asked him to curb imports of tires from China, and the U.S. International Trade Commission has recommended that Obama impose high tariffs, which would irritate the Chinese government.

Under a law approved by Congress in 2000, groups can file petitions seeking limits on Chinese imports, but President Bush turned down every petition that reached his desk as not in the U.S. national interest.

“I urge the administration to support the ‘section 421’ case on certain Chinese tire imports and to target China’s unfair subsidies through use of our antidumping and countervailing duty law,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said in a statement Thursday responding to the speech.

He said he was pleased by Kirk’s statements on enforcement, but that this should not be confused with a new direction in trade policy.

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“Our trade strategy is broken,” Brown said. “Workers want President Obama to negotiate new and better trade deals.”

The National Association of Manufacturers, one of many business groups disappointed that Congress has not taken action on the stalled trade deals, also praised Kirk for the enforcement talk. But it said the U.S. also needs an aggressive approach to negotiating and passing trade agreements.

“The three pending agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea need to be sent to Congress and passed into law,” said Frank Vargo, the group’s vice president for international economic affairs.

“Every day of delay costs us more lost job opportunities,” he said. “We can’t enforce agreements until we have them, and we want more of these great agreements so American companies can get a fairer deal in world trade and create more jobs at home.”