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The secret trade deal that threatens Maine’s frail economy

 Free trade at high cost
By ZACK ANCHORS  |  January 3, 2014

TRADE BALANCES This chart, by the Congressional Research Service, illustrates trade between potential TPP members. 

Today it’s far more likely that the shoes on your feet were made in Vietnam than in Maine, but a few decades ago the opposite would have been true. Dozens of shoe factories once employed 30,000 workers in Maine, making it the top shoe-producing state. What’s left of that workforce — several hundred New Balance employees — could soon be gone too, thanks to a massive free trade agreement that’s expected to eliminate a series of tariffs on imported footwear. And jobs may not be all the state has to lose.

Negotiations over this new trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), are in final stages this month, which also happens to mark the 20th anniversary of the enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). TPP, an agreement among the United States, Canada, and 12 Pacific Rim countries including Australia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam, could deal a blow to Maine’s shrunken manufacturing industry, just as NAFTA did years ago. That was the point stressed by workers, and echoed by Maine’s Congressional delegation, when former US Trade Representative Ron Kirk visited the New Balance factory in Norridgewock in September 2013.

But concern over the fate of manufacturing jobs has obscured other troubling implications, both local and global, of the TPP and several other free trade agreements in the works. While the TPP is touted as a crucial opportunity to remove trade barriers and boost global economic growth, a growing number of environmental organizations, intellectual property experts, consumer-rights activists, and public-health groups are voicing alarm about its other potential consequences. Many describe the agreement, the details of which are being worked out amid extreme secrecy, as an unprecedented attempt to bypass normal democratic processes and restructure the global economy in line with long-standing priorities of the world’s most powerful business interests. Among those priorities: stronger patent and copyright rules that favor pharmaceutical and tech companies over artists, consumers, and patients, and powerful new rights for corporations, such as the ability to challenge government laws and regulations using private tribunals.

“If [the US trade representative] somehow retains tariffs on shoe imports, that might be a victory for Maine workers,” says Matthew Beck, a labor organizer and vice-president of the Maine Fair Trade Campaign, a statewide coalition of more than 60 labor, environmental, human rights, family farm, and community groups. “But overall the agreement would still be horrendous for workers and countless others around the world, including those who depend on affordable drugs.”

In Maine, elected officials of both parties worry the agreement would undermine state regulations, decrease access to affordable medicine, create environmental and public health threats, and endanger jobs in several industries. Driven by these concerns, some Mainers are fighting to stop the deal in its tracks or at least to influence the final text of the agreement.

One voice of skepticism comes from state representative Sharon Anglin Treat (a Hallowell Democrat), an official adviser to the Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR), who is one of the only state-level elected officials in the country with limited access to the secret draft agreement.

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