Bloc worries Missouri workers

They say a massive new free trade agreement would lure jobs abroad.
Wednesday, November 19, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:30 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 28, 2008

For 16 years, Hiroko Roberts proudly sewed the top stitches in Stride Rite shoes. One of the top-paid workers in the Fulton factory, Roberts made $14.26 an hour in a job she enjoyed. But in 1995, the factory closed and Roberts was devastated.

“I cried when they sold that shop, but what could I do?” Roberts said.

What was so frustrating was the knowledge that her plant didn’t simply close, she said: It moved south of the border to Mexico.

Just one year before Roberts lost her job, the North American Free Trade Agreement was passed, beginning a process of eliminating taxes and tariffs between Canada, Mexico and the United States. After NAFTA, Stride Rite moved to Mexico where they could hire five or six women for every Fulton employee, said Carl Roberts, Hiroko’s husband.

Now, as NAFTA approaches its 10th anniversary, a new free trade agreement 10 times its size is being negotiated in Miami. The Free Trade Area of the Americas would eliminate barriers to trade among the 34 nations in the Western Hemisphere, creating the largest trade bloc in the world. But while proponents of the FTAA point to NAFTA as a model of economic growth, opponents say it would make it easier for more jobs to leave Missouri and move abroad.

In the past decade, much of the Missouri garment industry has followed Stride Rite’s example.

David Strange, trade assistance coordinator for the Missouri Department of Labor and Employment Training, said that in the 1990s, Missouri was one of the most active states in petitions for Trade Adjustment Assistance, a program that provides training and benefits for individuals who lose their jobs because of foreign trade.

“Missouri was always in the top 10 in terms of TAA petitions,” Strange said of that period. “Now, you’d have to look real hard to find a garment or shoe factory operating in the state because they’ve all pretty much moved offshore.”

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, between 1993 and 2000 more than 16,000 Missouri workers qualified for job benefits related to NAFTA job loss, including 440 Stride Rite employees, 300 Maytag employees in Jefferson City and 350 jeans manufacturers in Sedalia.

In 2002, Strange said his agency disbursed nearly $7 million in benefits and training for more than 3,100 Missouri residents certified for TAA.

Ricardo Reyes, spokesman for the U.S Trade Representative, said free trade agreements spur the domestic economy by sparking huge increases in U.S. exports. For instance, in 2002, The Trade Partnership reported that NAFTA boosted Missouri exports to Mexico by 71 percent in the past decade. The Free Trade Area of the Americas would promote such trade throughout the western hemisphere, he said.

But the Roberts family remains skeptical. As free trade policies expand, it’s not just textiles companies like Stride Rite that are moving jobs to cheaper labor markets, but manufacturing industries like steel and firebricks, Carl Roberts said. In 2002, he lost his job at a firebrick plant in Mexico, Mo. Although he is now retired, he said he knows the FTAA could affect the industry, which he worked in for more than three decades.

“The whole manufacturing industry is on edge,” he said.

Coming Thursday:

Mid-Missouri was once heralded as the “Firebrick Capital of the World,” manufacturing firebricks, insulating material for the blast furnaces and kilns used in the steel industry. But now, of seven refractories, only two continue to operate in Fulton and Vandalia.

In 2002, hundreds of jobs left mid-Missouri when the AP Green Refractory in Mexico, Mo., shut down. To avoid further losses in manufacturing jobs, union workers are attending the Free Trade Area of the Americas negotiations in Miami to protest further eliminations of tariffs on imported goods.

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