NAFTA: it's now or never, but is it too late?


Yesterday morning was a thing of beauty and a joy for a while. With God in his heaven turning on all the lights, you could look across the Inner Harbor from the 21st floor of the World Trade Center and in the distance imagine Washington, D.C., which is not quite as far as Mexico but headed in the right direction.

Ben Cardin and Wayne Gilchrest showed up. They were reaching across party lines to embrace each other on the great trade issue of our time, called NAFTA. The two of them looked out these big windows, past Federal Hill and Cherry Hill and maybe into Brooklyn and Anne Arundel County.

But if they imagined Washington in the distance, they noticed this uncomfortable fact: Nobody knows if tomorrow's vote there on the North American Free Trade Agreement will pass, and if it does not, we will have trouble seeing Mexico for the foreseeable future, even if we stand on the southernmost tip of Texas and climb aboard Ross Perot's bony shoulders.

Yesterday was 48 hours before the vote on NAFTA, and here is what Rep. Gilchrest said to about 50 business people at the World Trade Center:

"We want to begin the process of getting information to the American people."

You hear this?

Forty-eight hours before the vote, and we are hearing the phrase:

". . . begin the process . . ."

"A close vote," Representative Cardin was saying a few minutes later but, frankly, he didn't seem to have his heart in the prediction.

It was tough to say exactly why, though this eleventh-hour phrase "begin-the-process" was a clue.

This late in the game, everybody connected with the NAFTA effort worries that they've never quite calmed people's fears about losing their jobs.

So yesterday, there were assurances from those whose opinion should count: politicians like Cardin and Gilchrest, and leaders of business and working class types, too.

"Look at how many jobs we're losing now," said Alex Green. He's a mechanic at the Ellicott Machine Corporation, which makes dredging equipment on Bush Street in South Baltimore.

Over the past several years, in the faltering U.S. economy, the company's cut about 100 jobs.

"Was over a hundred people working there," Green said. "Now there's 27."

"Eighty percent of our product is sold overseas," added Charles Kreter, the company's general manager. "For years now,

workers have seen their jobs flowing out of the country. With NAFTA . . ."

He didn't have to finish the sentence. Those against the trade agreement paint dark pictures of companies moving south of the border to exploit cheaper Mexican labor.

Bye-bye, American jobs.

But those favoring NAFTA say whatever jobs are lost would be more than replaced by the expanded foreign markets, which would lead to new jobs here.

"Take this lipstick," said Carroll Bodie. He's division counsel for Procter & Gamble cosmetics.

He held up some Cover Girl lipstick and began talking money in understandable terms: Cover Girl can sell for $4.25 here, he said, but take it to Mexico and throw in various tariffs and duties, and the cheapest it can sell for is now $5.50.

"We can't be competitive with that price," said Bodie.

"With NAFTA, we're in the ballgame."

Consider some numbers state officials put together:

Since the Canadian Free Trade Agreement was implemented, Maryland's exports to Canada have increased by $135 million.

Since Mexico began to liberalize its economy in 1985, Maryland's exports there have increased an average annual rate of 44 percent, to $51 million.

Maryland exports of manufactured goods to Mexico and Canada generated more than 18,000 jobs here in 1991.

So where's the problem?

"Well," one business executive muttered, "the White House didn't get serious until August."

"Well," said a state official, "people are frightened of change. Labor sees its power slipping and wants to hold on."

"Well," said Wayne Gilchrest, "there's an issue of trust. Do people trust politicians? Do they trust big corporations? We have to convince them that they can."

And with that, just 48 hours before the big vote, he stood in front of all these people and uttered the phrase "begin the process" and hoped that he wasn't too late.

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