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Trading truth for lies 

It's time Democratic presidential hopefuls get honest with labor

Imagine this: You're in a Corvette with Democratic presidential hopeful Dick Gephardt. He's driving 100 mph down the interstate, sixth gear, top down, wind in his helmet-like coif, and then he realizes he's missed his exit -- five minutes ago!

Funny thing is, Gephardt still thinks he can make the off ramp.

You know he's nuts, and most importantly, he knows he's nuts. But he just can't stop reassuring you that he can make that turn.

Sound weird? Not if you're an American manufacturing employee. You're used to Gephardt's brand of "logic." Because Democratic presidential candidates are telling them every day: We can make the off ramp -- to the 1960s, turn back the clock on a decade of free trade pain and jobs that have fled our shores.

Make no mistake. The pain is real. Manufacturing employment, between 1967 and 1998, accounted for a relatively constant 18 million workers. As of August, that number was down to just 14.6 million. That's the loss of 3.4 million jobs that pay middle-class wages and benefits to workers, few of whom have college degrees. Meanwhile, manufacturing's share of gross domestic product dropped from 16.3 percent in 1998, to 13.9 percent in 2002.

Those are some scary numbers for Democrats. Union voters pull the lever for Dems, and unions themselves are hellacious organizers that get out the vote come Election Day.

It's created a situation where the candidates are making promises they can't keep: They're going to staunch the bleeding of our manufacturing jobs by using America's economic might to enforce fair trade, not just free trade. They're going to make the countries we negotiate with adopt our labor standards and our protections for the environment. They're going to level the playing field. The good ol' days can return. It's just a vote away.

Too bad it's bullshit.

The manufacturing jobs we've lost are gone, and no matter what we do, few if any, are coming back. Second, using trade negotiations as a club to bend countries to our will actually undermines the democratic principles we say we want to promote abroad. Third, America is one of the world's worst offenders when it comes to fair trade, and our policies -- negotiated primarily by the Clinton administration -- are responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people and the impoverishment of millions of others.

So Democrats are stuck with something of a Catch-22: Tell some fibs and hope the blue-collar vote buys it, or tell the truth and pray blue-collar workers can stomach it.

For the sake of argument, let's go with the latter. Democrats can make humane free trade a selling point in the 2004 elections. It means promises of investments in the re-training of workers who will lose their jobs. It means investing in the education of those workers' children, and it means coming up with a comprehensive health plan that leaves jobless workers with a real safety net.

Finally, and most powerfully, Democrats can tie free trade to the blood we've lost. And not just on the streets of Seattle and Genoa, Italy, but in the collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. As much as any air base in Saudi Arabia, our free trade hypocrisy is responsible for a rising tide of anti-Americanism throughout the world. It threatens our national security.

Of course, this matters little to people such as Deborah White, a woman who embodies the human cost of globalization. White watched her job at the Levi Strauss & Co. plant in the north Georgia mountains of Blue Ridge disappear overseas. She worked in the plant for 29 years before it closed a little more than a year ago. She sewed the leather labels onto the jeans -- 60 pairs in six minutes, a fact she still mentions with a hint of pride.

On a recent Saturday afternoon in Atlanta, White along with fellow out-of-work apparel workers, Eddie Neal and Luvan Griggs, found themselves together at a Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) meeting at the Ramada Inn just across the interstate from the construction of Hartsfield-Jackson Airport's fifth runway.

The irony was inescapable. They could stare out at an orange moonscape of giant bulldozers preparing the way for a landing strip where the commercial titans of the world will stop off for downtown conventions, steak dinners and Scotch. Meanwhile, they sat at their paper placemats sipping iced tea, chewing tasteless fish and spongy fried chicken, wondering how their lives got turned upside down by an acronym -- namely NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement.

White, 50, wears every one of her years on her face. She still collects unemployment -- $275 per week -- and goes to North Georgia Tech in Clarkesville under NAFTA's Trade Readjustment Assistance (TRA), which allows her to keep those unemployment checks coming as long as she remains in school. She made $16.80 an hour at the Levi plant, a wage that allowed a single woman to cling to the rungs of the middle class.

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