Helping global trade’s ‘losers’

Ashley Gross Jun 16, 2015

Helping global trade’s ‘losers’

Ashley Gross Jun 16, 2015

The vote in the House of Representatives last Friday that effectively stalled President Obama’s push for a big Asia-Pacific trade deal has brought attention to a little-known worker assistance program called Trade Adjustment Assistance. That program’s been around since the 1960s to help Americans who lose their jobs because of global trade.  

Under the president’s trade bill, it would have been retooled and extended, but Democrats in the House torpedoed that idea as a way to put the brakes on the larger trade legislation. But far outside the beltway, in the other Washington – Washington state – workers who have benefited from the assistance program say it shouldn’t be allowed to die.

One town that’s felt the brunt of global trade is Aberdeen, Washington.

When you drive into Aberdeen, near the Pacific Coast, you see a welcome sign that says “Come As You Are” – a tribute to Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain, who grew up here.

That grunge sound grew out of tough economic times here in the early 1990s, and if you look around Aberdeen today, it seems hard times are still here. There are boarded up storefronts downtown.

Brad Pierog is one of the people who lost his job because of the declining timber industry. On a recent day, he stood out in his yard describing everyone on his block who worked in the mills. Not many do anymore, including him.

On a January day in 2009, he was supposed to work the night shift at the Weyerhaeuser sawmill in Aberdeen. In the afternoon, his buddy called and said, “Want to go fishing tomorrow?”

“And I said, `Well, we got to work tomorrow,’ and he says, `Well, no, we don’t. We got some time off,’ ” Pierog recalled. “And I said, `What, are we laid off or what?’ He said, `Nope, they just pulled the plug. The mill’s done.’ ”

He’d spent 25 years working there. His wife worked there. All his friends worked there.

“We weren’t able to compete with subsidized Canadian lumber,” Pierog says.

That’s not the only reason, but the U.S. Department of Labor agreed that imports were a factor. So Pierog and his coworkers qualified for Trade Adjustment Assistance. It was created in 1962 as a way to acknowledge that there are winners and losers when we trade and to help people who wind up on the losing end.

Pierog went to a meeting with union representatives and state officials to find out what kind of help he could get.

“And I said, ‘Since I’ve already got an associate’s degree, can I go get a bachelor’s?’ And they said, `It has to be something you can actually get a job in.’ And I said, `Well, I want to get a bachelor’s in computer science.’ ”

Boom. It was like he said the magic words. They got him into a college within three weeks. And now, six years later, he’s a software developer for the state of Washington.

The person who helps make all that happen in Washington state is Bill Messenger of the Washington State Labor Council. Before this, Messenger spent more than 30 years working in a pulp mill himself and had never heard of Trade Adjustment Assistance until he got word his mill was closing down.

Many people haven’t heard of it, but Trade Adjustment Assistance offers benefits to about 100,000 people a year. Once he lost his pulp mill job, Messenger came to work for the state labor council to help workers apply for this program. He’s almost like a bereavement counselor, showing up at factories right after employees find out they’re losing their jobs.

“Up to 800 people, 900 people — all in one facility — looking at you like, ‘What now?’ ” Messenger says.

Messenger says he’s helped thousands of workers in Washington state get benefits.

Now that program may be in jeopardy. Democratic Rep. Rick Larsen, who represents a district north of Seattle, is upset about that.

“As a Democrat, I think I would call on my fellow Democratic colleagues to change their minds,” Larsen says. 

He supports the fast-track trade bill, but he’s concerned the Republicans have the votes to pass it without the worker-retraining legislation.

“That would be more than unfortunate,” Larsen says. “That would be devastating to folks who are thrown out of work.”

Jeffrey Schott, with the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, D.C., says the program does have critics. Some say companies should provide this assistance — not the government.

“Others feel that the program is justified, but it hasn’t been well constructed, and that the current programs are inefficient,” Schott says.

Schott says in the end, though, it may organized labor — a group that traditionally supports the program — that brings down the president’s trade agenda.

“Big labor unions, for tactical reasons, have basically pulled the rug out from under him,” Schott says.

It’s unclear what’s going to happen next.

What is clear is that if the Trade Adjustment Assistance program doesn’t pass within the trade package, the original program could die. It needs to be reauthorized by the end of September.  

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