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Farmers, labor team up to make trade a campaign issue

(Thursday, Oct. 23, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Elizabeth Becker, NY Times, 10/21/03: CHURDAN, Iowa When unions go on strike here, local farmers usually show up at picket lines with hogs and fresh produce to make sure the workers' families have food on their tables.

And when farmers were suffering through the 1980 agricultural crisis, union members rolled up their sleeves to help raise pressure for higher crop prices.

But it has taken a shared fury about international trade rules to bring together farmers and unions in a rare coalition over a single issue, one they are elevating to the top of the agendas of both the Republican president and his Democratic challengers as they court voters in the runup to the Jan. 19 caucuses here.

Unions and farmers who are members of the new Iowa Fair Trade Coalition object to rules that they say are weighted to favor large corporations. They criticize changes in the trade rules for going beyond merely lowering tariffs to include protections for corporations that threaten national laws covering the environment, access to inexpensive medicine and labor standards.

George Naylor, the president of the National Family Farm Coalition, said the new trade rules made it difficult to maintain a family. Mr. Naylor's ancestors came here to Greene County in 1880 and he continues to farm the family's 470 acres, nearly finished with a harvest of feed corn and emerald-green soybeans.

"Trade is a much bigger issue now that we've seen how corporations are benefiting from these trade laws, not family farmers," he said. "We don't want to give up all we've worked for simply to help big agribusinesses be more competitive."

One indication of how sensitive trade has become as a political issue was a decision by Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, a strong proponent of global trade, to bypass Iowa's caucus vote.

And to the dismay of Democratic centrists, the leading candidates here so far Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor have made the fairness of international trade rules a central theme of their stump speeches.

Mr. Dean criticizes what he calls "one-sided pro-business free trade agreements" for failing to include labor and environmental standards.

"If it is O.K. for General Motors to move to Mexico and open a plant, it is O.K. for the United Auto Workers to organize that plant," he said.

Those positions are also held by Mr. Gephardt, who has long opposed free trade. In his speech, he has included Iowa's farmers in a list of victims of free trade.

This worries Charlene Barshefsky, the United States trade representative during the Clinton administration. Democratic candidates, she said, should not confuse President Bush's handling of the economy with complaints about trade. Democrats since President Franklin D. Roosevelt, she said, have been committed to global trade.

"We Americans talk a good game about wanting to alleviate poverty in the world but when we have to ante up and open our borders to trade, Americans flip out," she said. "What they don't realize is that no country has benefited more from free trade than the United States."

Opponents of free trade say it is not correct to characterize them as ignorant of the facts. Mark Smith, president of the Iowa Federation of Labor, said, "it's the terms of trade that are devastating, not trade itself."

"But we're called Luddites and protectionists if we bring up that unfairness," he said.

How trade plays out in Iowa could determine the debate in other crucial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Unions, farmers and a growing number of politicians charge that unfair international trade rules have caused the elimination of thousands of manufacturing jobs, the erosion of small towns and the consolidation of big agribusinesses that are wiping out the nation's smaller farms.

Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, said that, with the loss of 2.7 million jobs over the last three years, people were understandably anxious that further trade openings would affect their jobs and their salaries.

"We pay short shrift to their concerns," he said. "We lecture and say they have to make adjustments and everyone will be better off in the long run, but that's not true in the United States or in developing nations. Not everyone is better off. And in many developing nations no one is better off."

Brother David Andrews, director of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, which is based in Des Moines, said that the effect of trade especially the North America Free Trade Agreement had so unsettled rural America that the country's Roman Catholic bishops planned to issue a call for action on trade next month.

The bishops, he said, will discuss not only the effect on American farmers but also on Mexicans who have lost their farms since the passage of Nafta and fled to the United States, often as illegal immigrants. In Iowa, they have dangerous, lower-paid jobs in packing plants as well as seasonal field work.

"The effect of opening up agricultural trade has been huge and devastating in the countryside here and in Mexico," Brother Andrews said.