IMAGE: Arthur Stamoulis
Last week, about 200 demonstrators carried placards reading "Fair Trade Not Free Trade! and "Stop Exporting Our Jobs!" outside the Portland office of Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) while shouting, "Bring our jobs back!"
Wyden's office in the Edith Green Wendell Wyatt Federal Building downtown was picketed outside for an hour Wednesday, April 4, because of the then-congressman's vote 14 years ago for the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Free-trade opponents want Wyden to reverse his longtime support of free-trade deals when similar questions come up again in Congress. Protesters blame NAFTA, and support of it from Democrats such as Wyden, for the recent layoffs of 750 workers at the Freightliner plant in North Portland.
While Freightliner ascribes the layoffs to a market slump, union officials point to Freightliner building a $300 million production plant in northern Mexico.
By free-trade opponents' logic, they don't picket free trade-supporting Republicans like Smith because they believe they hold more sway with Wyden, given his traditional labor support. (They'd also have to take a number behind the antiwar protesters who have dogged Smith's Portland office each week since late January.)
"It's one thing for corporations to move their factories out of America," says Arthur Stamoulis, director of the Oregon Fair Trade Campaign, a coalition of environmental, labor and human-rights groups. "It's another for our elected officials to make it easier for them."
Bruce A. Blonigen, Knight professor of social science in the University of Oregon's economics department, traces Freightliner's move to a combination of factors.
"The short-run issue is a current slump in orders, but the long-run issue is lower costs in Mexico," Blonigen says. "This is probably just an opportune time to shutter a U.S. factory and make the long-run move to Mexico."
Wyden's office notes that many of the jobs lost in Oregon went to a plant in North Carolina and that U.S. jobs were already moving to Mexico long before the trade agreements went into effect.
"The actual cause is impossible to determine," says Wyden spokeswoman Melissa Merz.
Beyond Wyden's support of NAFTA in 1993, he voted in the Senate for the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement.
He's also supported a program known as "fast track" that requires a straight up-or-down vote on trade legislation within 90 days. Most recently implemented by the Republican-controlled Congress in 2002, fast track gives the president authority to negotiate trade terms but then prevents Congress from filibustering or even amending them as it does regular legislation. The act is scheduled to expire this year and is up for an extension in the now Democratic-controlled Congress.
Wyden's office says the senator has supported unions for more than two decades in Congress but will need to see the exact legislation on fast-track extension before commenting. "He commends his friends for their efforts," says Merz.
Sounds like Wyden may be seeing more of his "friends" outside his office building.