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NAFTA takes a blue-collar bite

While some reap free trade's benefits, others pay a price

Dan and Mary Harding were saved by a $7-an-hour job.

The North Portland couple has had a trying spring. The same day that Mary finished her job-retraining program at Portland Community College, Dan got laid off.

Their modest savings dwindled steadily until Mary found a manufacturing job similar to the one she'd held before retraining Ñ except it paid less, since it was through a temp agency.

Not long ago, the Hardings were getting by just fine. They both worked for Willamette Electric Products Inc., a Portland firm employing about 150 that rebuilt car parts such as alternators and starters.

Then Willamette Electric's main competitor opened a factory in Mexico and saved enough on labor to repeatedly undercut Willamette Electric on price. Rounds of layoffs followed in Portland, and Willamette Electric went under in March 2001.

The Hardings were among those who lost their jobs. They joined the ranks of thousands who attribute their plight to the North American Free Trade Agreement. NAFTA was enacted in 1994 to eliminate trade barriers between Canada, the United States and Mexico.

According to figures compiled by the U.S. Department of Labor,

NAFTA has cost the nation hundreds of thousands of jobs, more than 20,000 of them in Oregon.

Perspectives differ on how significant a role NAFTA has played in ratcheting up Oregon's unemployment rate to 8.5 percent in June, the state's highest in 17 years.

'It's an unrefuted finding that NAFTA has cost us far more jobs than it has created,' says Tim Nesbitt, president of the Oregon AFL-CIO.

Economist Joseph Cortright, who runs the consulting firm Impresa Inc., argues that job losses from NAFTA should be balanced against the huge benefits of international trade to some of the region's biggest companies, such as Nike Inc. and Intel Corp.

'A lot of people in Portland are working because the rest of the world is open to free trade,' Cortright says.

The biggest factor in the decline of the manufacturing sector in Oregon Ñ which is largely to blame for the state's high unemployment rate in this recession Ñ is the overall weakness of the national economy, says Art Ayre, economist for the Oregon Employment Department. But he cites NAFTA as being among many other factors.

New jobs scarce

There currently are 4,000 workers in Portland who qualify for government benefits because investigations by the Department of Labor determined that they lost their jobs as a result of NAFTA.

Many of the workers were employed by companies that are ÑÊor were ÑÊamong the mainstays of Portland's economy, such as Freightliner LLC, Jantzen Inc. and Linnton Plywood.

Freightliner has laid off 2,800 workers from its Swan Island truck manufacturing plant since shifting production to Mexico, where labor costs are low, in the late 1990s, according to the state Employment Department.

Jantzen, a division of Perry Ellis International, also cut its labor costs by opening a factory in Mexico. The move left 387 Portland employees out of work and the company's former sewing plant on Northeast Sandy Boulevard vacant and for lease.

Linnton Plywood, the city's last plywood mill to go out of business, lost out to Canadian competition, the Department of Labor recently ruled. The heavily subsidized Canadian timber industry began producing plywood for less money and importing it to U.S. markets under NAFTA. Linnton's customers started buying Canadian, and 127 Portlanders lost their jobs.

Workers who qualify for NAFTA benefits can get up to $12,000 to pay for schooling, as well as limited income support.

The Hardings tried to make the most of what the program offered. At age 53, Mary returned to school for the first time since 1968. Her two years of study at Portland Community College helped her gain computer skills and a degree in library media. But she hasn't found a job in that field because there aren't any.

That's why she didn't hesitate when the temp firm Express Personnel Services set her up with a position assembling car stereo equipment at Phoenix Gold International Inc. The job was similar to what she did before going back to school, but not as greasy and with lower pay.

Still, Harding says, 'Seven dollars is better than nothing.'

Her husband, Dan, who worked at Willamette Electric for 24 years, has applied for about eight jobs a week since being laid off by Faulkner Automotive Electric Co. in March. His biggest frustration is that it is almost impossible to meet someone face to face to convince them he would be a good hire.

'It's hard to find a way to talk to a living, breathing person,' he laments. 'They don't even hand you an application. They give you a business card and tell you to go to their Web site.'

Ayre, the state's labor economist, says, 'There are very few fields right now where it's easy to get a job.'

'A dirty factory job'

Willamette Electric was a nonunion shop. Its workers, many of whom spoke English as a second language, earned modest wages ranging from $7 to $13 per hour.

That's about equal to a full day's pay at the factories that operate duty-free in Mexican border towns under NAFTA.

Some of Willamette Electric's former employees have successfully moved on to new careers. Ou Fow Tree, a 20-year employee, went through retraining and found full-time work at Legacy Good Samaritan Hospital & Medical Center (health care is one of the few growth industries in Portland).

Others have been less fortunate. James Chanthabouasy, who worked for Willamette Electric for 23 years, says, 'I look every day, but nobody is hiring.'

Glenn Shuck, who as executive director of Labor's Community Service Agency Inc. has been working with displaced workers in Portland for 20 years, says NAFTA is 'killing us.'

Few disagree that blue-collar Portland has been hit hard.

Cortright points out, 'It's been the folks with the lowest level of education who have lost out under NAFTA. The more creative the job, the more skilled the job, the less likely that it will be sent overseas.'

Dan Harding allows that his job rebuilding car parts at Willamette Electric wasn't anything fancy. 'It was a dirty, factory job,' he says. 'But dirty factories are the backbone of the economy.'

Savings nears nil

With funding from the United Way and local labor unions, Shuck's nonprofit group helps dislocated workers pay their utility bills, keep their homes and fend off creditors.

Shuck says the biggest problem for many laid-off workers is the spiraling cost of medical care, but there is no shortage of other hardships.

'It's dismal out there,' Shuck says. 'I'm glad I'm not out looking for work right now.'

So is Mary Harding.

When the Hardings worked at Willamette Electric, 'we were comfortable,' Dan recalls. 'We had enough to meet all our bills and go to the occasional movie or concert. We even started a little savings account, which by the way is almost gone now.'

Now they're living on Mary's $7 an hour, plus Dan's $209-a-week unemployment check. Rent is $575 a month, and bus passes are $45 each. They applied for and got food stamps, but they haven't yet visited the Oregon Food Bank.

'There are plenty of others who are far worse off than we are,' Mary Harding explains.

Contact Ben Jacklet at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..