By LINDA WOODLAND
When the North American Free Trade Agreement was hammered out in the early ’90s, few in Fostoria could foresee the negative impact it would have on the community.
Especially when then-CEO of Allied-Signal Autolite Larry Bossidy held up a spark plug and pronounced it was made in Fostoria, along with 25 million more. And Bossidy promised if NAFTA passed, it would bring more jobs to Fostoria — about 15,000 of them.
NAFTA passed and a couple weeks ago, that same sparkplug-making plant closed its doors after more than 20 years of reducing its workforce as Autolite outsourced its work through NAFTA for cheaper labor beyond the nation’s borders.
Now, after two decades of communities just like Fostoria have lost jobs and factories, NAFTA is getting another look from Washington, where U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) met Tuesday with President Donald Trump to discuss steel and trade policy and how it has affected Fostoria and communities just like it across the nation.
Allyson Murray of Fostoria was at the forefront of a teleconference hosted by Brown Wednesday where he reported on his meeting with the president.
Murray, who was laid off from Autolite in 2009, explained what affect NAFTA had on her personally, and on Fostoria.
“As a single mother I needed a good job with benefits and through the assistance of the Trade Adjustment Assistance Program I was able to go back to school and begin a new career in local municipal government,” Murray told those attending the teleconference.
“The thing that most people don’t realize about NAFTA is that it affects so many more people than just the laid off workers. I had co-workers who lost their homes, their cars, their ability to pay for their children’s activities and school,” Murray said.
“The local lunch spots and taverns in town soon started to close because they no longer had that lunch and after-work crowd. The local government took a crushing blow. Prior to the layoffs, the tax revenues in the city’s general fund ran near 9 million dollars. After the job losses, it suddenly shrank to just over 6 million dollars. These are the funds that pay for police and fire services, as well as monies that fund parks and swimming pools — those things that enhance the quality of life in your community. The outcome was that NAFTA created a ripple effect that impacted entire communities that historically had a solid foundation in manufacturing,” she said.
But the former Fostoria safety service director who is now the village administrator of North Baltimore is looking beyond that gloom and sees hope for the future.
“After participating in the roundtable discussion with Senator Brown, I am confident that NAFTA can be re-tooled, so to speak, and have a positive outcome for American workers,” she said at the teleconference.
At that roundtable discussion a few weeks ago, Brown talked to workers and businesses about NAFTA and what Ohioans want to see in any renegotiated NAFTA agreement.
“I took those concerns directly to the president yesterday,” Brown said. “I made clear to the president, as I have in the past, on what we should be doing together on trade. On steel, we need to take quick action to address China’s steel overcapacity. For far too long our steel industry’s been drowning under a flood of unfairly traded steel imports that threatened Ohio jobs last year.”
Brown explained the administration launched an investigation into the impact of certain steel imports where national security is concerned.
Under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act, the president has broad power to adjust imports — including through the use of tariffs — if excessive foreign imports are found to be a threat to U.S. national security.
“Our military often needs specialty steel alloys that require unusual production skills and are used for armor, vehicles, ships, aircraft, and infrastructure. As a result, a robust and healthy domestic steel production industry may be deemed necessary to guarantee military supply chains in the event of conflict,” a May 2017 news release issued by the Department of Commerce stated.
While these defense concerns continue to loom, the U.S. steel industry has struggled in recent years, the release noted. Industry employment has been declining, companies are highly leveraged, and businesses remain both capital intensive and lacking strong cash flow. Imports now represent 26 percent of the market and the U.S. steel mills and foundries are operating at just 71 percent of capacity, the May release stated.
“But it’s been nine months and we’ve seen, unfortunately — because of the administration’s inaction and bungling on this — we’ve seen foreign competitors dump more steel into our market to try to get under the deadline and unfortunately the 232 has sat out there unused at this point.”
Brown said he and Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) wrote to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and to the president directly demanding action.
“Seeing what we can achieve for Ohio businesses and Ohio workers when we enforce trade rules, the administration followed calls from me and Senator Portman this month to stand up for workers at Whirlpool. Their jobs had been threatened by cheap imports, especially from Korea. The president, in the end, made the right decision. Now 3500 workers at Whirlpool will be protected and Whirlpool plans to add 200 jobs at its plant in Clyde. I urged the president to take the same hard line when it comes to trade cheats in our steel industry. I pressed the president to continue NAFTA negotiations.”
Brown said he has worked hard to build a close, personal relationship with Robert Lighthizer, the man leading the U.S. delegation in NAFTA talks.
“I’ve been encouraged that Ambassador Lighthizer has brought new ideas and consulted with workers and manufacturers and communities that have been hurt by NAFTA. I want to make sure he hears the concerns of Ohio businesses and Ohio workers like Ms. Murray,” Brown said.
“As I told the president yesterday, a well-negotiated NAFTA actually helps Ohio workers,” Brown said. “I’ll be the first one out there to support it. I’ll help deliver other Democratic votes to get it passed. I promised the president that I will deliver Democratic votes if he and Ambassador Lighthizer negotiate an agreement that’s good for workers.”