Battle for Oregon highlights Obama's free-trade challenge

Tue Apr 14, 2015 5:00am EDT
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By Krista Hughes and Shelby Sebens

WASHINGTON/PORTLAND, Ore., April 14 (Reuters) - It is crunch time for President Barack Obama's push to finalize an ambitious Pacific free trade pact and anyone wondering why it is such a tough sell may want to talk to the people of Oregon.

This West Coast state of 4 million people, which hosts major operations of global giants Nike Inc and Intel Corp , exemplifies the nation's ambiguity about free trade and shows the battle lines between its advocates and critics.

With 44 percent of Oregon's exports already heading to the Trans Pacific Partnership countries and an estimated one in five jobs dependent on trade, local businesses are lobbying for the 12-nation pact that would stretch from Japan to Chile, covering 40 percent of the world economy.

Yet scars from two decades of globalization and fears that big business will hijack the agenda make even many of those who may benefit from more trade apprehensive.

"We understand that it's a necessary thing, you have to have trade, you have to be able to put your products in other markets," says John Kleiboeker, 45, Boeing Co worker of 18 years and machinists' union president at the aircraft maker's Gresham factory east of Portland.

"Most people I know, though, feel it should be on a basis where everybody wins instead of just large corporations," he said, adding the main concern is that more jobs will get moved to countries with lower wages and labor standards.

Kleiboeker and many others fear that will be facilitated by proposed "fast-track" legislation that would set ground rules and objectives for the administration to negotiate but only give Congress a yes-or-no vote on the final agreement.

Oregon senator Ron Wyden is working with Republicans to make the bill more palatable to fellow Democrats and the public. His pivotal role has made him a target of anti-trade campaigners, with one group even following him at one point with a 30-foot (9 m) blimp saying: "Ron Wyden: It's up to you. Don't betray us!"   Continued...