New coalition aims to derail free-trade agreement


WASHINGTON -- In the latest sign of widening dissatisfaction with trade policies that many feel are compromising U.S. economic health, a group of prominent executives, politicians, union leaders and analysts have teamed up to fight for new controls on global commerce.

High on their hit list is the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Bush administration negotiators are scrambling to complete by next week with Mexico and Canada.

The administration has long touted the agreement as a badly needed instrument sanctioning free and open trade. It would link a massive single market of about 360 million consumers and producers with a total annual output topping $6 trillion, and would provide a robust North American counter to European unification.

A successful trade agreement, White House officials contend, would open up tens of billions of dollars in new business opportunities for U.S. companies, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs for companies able to capitalize on the change.

Critics say the agreement would cause severe dislocations as U.S. companies speeded up the transfer of manufacturing jobs to Mexico, where workers earn as little as $56 a week in total wages and benefits.

"I want somebody to make the case to me that we will enter into a [trade agreement] with a country with one-tenth our wage scale and tell me that it's going to create jobs in the United States," said Jock Nash. "I don't see how it can."

Mr. Nash is Washington counsel for Milliken & Co., a large Spartanburg, S.C., textile company and a charter member of the American Trade Coalition.

The group, to be formally announced today, aims to help frame a new national trade agenda that puts U.S. economic interests ahead of what many consider to be outmoded free-market dogma, said organizer John P. Cregan.

"Right now, we have a sort of missionary approach to free trade," Mr. Cregan said of U.S. policy. Mr. Cregan, who is president of the U.S. Business and Industrial Council, a trade group, wants policy redirected along the lines of what he calls "competitive trade for the real world."

The country's foreign competitors don't play by the same rules U.S. companies do, Mr. Cregan said.

In China, for instance, slave labor is frequently used to make products that then compete against U.S.-made goods in the United States.

In Japan, huge conglomerates in close-knit support groups called keiretsu routinely operate in ways that would break U.S. antitrust laws, to the severe disadvantage of U.S. companies abiding by U.S. laws.

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