Breaking News Emails
As President Barack Obama visited Nike's headquarters in Portland — a city known for lush greenery, constant drizzle and liberal politics — the left-leaning enclave has become ground zero Friday for the debate over the administration's push for a sweeping, multinational trade deal.
The president acknowledged that he's faced hurdles in his quest to garner support for an ambitious trade accord between the United States and 11 South American and Pacific Rim nations, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He told workers at the Nike campus that the people opposing this "typically they're my friends and coming from my own party. On this one, they're like, whooping on me."
Obama insisted the trade push is not political for him, since he's run his last election. He said the trade accord is the right thing to do for working families.
"The only reason I do something is because I think it's good for the economy," Obama said.
Still, in Portland, with its normally laid back vibe, the debate over the trade issue is splitting residents into two camps.
On the one side are companies like Nike, one of the city’s largest employers. The company employs 8,500 people in Oregon and 26,000 nationwide. Nike says its economic impact on the state of Oregon is $2.5 billion.
And the company promises to add 10,000 jobs and an additional 40,000 indirect and supply chain service jobs if the trade deal is approved.
"We believe agreements that encourage free and fair trade allow Nike to do what we do best: innovate, expand our businesses and drive economic growth," said Mark Parker, Nike's president and CEO.
On the other side are labor unions that argue that the trade accord would repress worker wages and encourage companies — like Nike — to outsource jobs.
Those differences were on display Friday morning as Nike workers, most wearing Nike shoes, lined up to cheer the president. Meanwhile, about a hundred protesters crowded outside and chanted their outrage.
“Nike represents everything about corporate America that stinks,” said Andrew Crosby, as he carried a protest sign.
The pact has even split Oregon’s senators, both Democrats.
Sen. Ron Wyden is helping lead the charge to pass "fast-track" authority which would grant Obama and future presidents the right to ask for an up-or-down vote in Congress on trade agreements. Obama and supporters say the president needs this authority to better negotiate with other nations.
Opponents worry that such large trade deals deserve vetting by Congress. Sen. Jeff Merkley has said he is "dubious" about the impact of such broad trade accords.
“This is a betrayal of Oregon workers,” said Dan O’Donnell, a member of the carpenter’s union on the streets protesting giving the president "fast track" authority on the trade deal.
Other lawmakers have also cited concerns.
The White House knows it's facing a tough sell.
If all the nations involved come to an agreement, the resulting trade accord would be the largest since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, which spelled out rules for trade among the U.S., Canada and Mexico. And that worries opponents who derisively call the Trans-Pacific Partnership "NAFTA on steroids," citing concerns over worker rights abuses, domestic job loss, and poor environmental practices they say took place under that trade pact .
“We are fully aware past trade deals have not lived up to the hype,” deputy press secretary Eric Schultz said aboard Air Force One as the president was en route to Portland.
Senate Republicans, to some degree, are on board. But the tougher sell is congressional Democrats.
The president, senior White House staff and cabinet secretaries have been pitching members of Congress privately for weeks. There's also a clear public relations strategy with the president talking the deal up in interviews with David Letterman, MSNBC’s Chris Matthew and NPR’s Steve Inskeep.
The president's most fiery language yet was a pitch to Organizing for Action, a room full of his most loyal supporters, Democratic donors.
But those efforts aren't convincing deep blue liberals like Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
And the choice of Nike as a backdrop didn’t go over well with them.
"Nike epitomizes why disastrous unfettered free-trade policies during the past four decades have failed American workers, eroded our manufacturing base and increased income and wealth inequality in this country," Sanders said in a letter earlier this week asking Obama to cancel his trip to Nike.
Nike certainly has a troubled history with its labor practices.
In the 90’s Nike was criticized for using sweatshop workers to make sneakers, their famous slogan was co-opted by protesters who chanted “Just Don’t Do It”. In 1998, Nike’s CEO Phil Knight acknowledged: “The Nike product has become synonymous with slave wages, forced overtime, and arbitrary abuse.”
Nike says it’s since cleaned up its act.
“Our past lessons have fundamentally changed the way we do business. We’ve made significant improvements and driven positive change for workers in contract factories that make Nike product,” said Greg Rossiter, a company spokesman.
One million people work in Nike’s factories, one-third in Vietnam, but Nike won’t say what those workers are making — insisting the wages are set by the factories.
Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, wrote in a memo to reporters she “gasped when I heard that President Obama selected Nike as the location to pitch the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal.” Wallach said Nike has “grown and profited not by creating American jobs, but by producing in offshore sweatshops with rock bottom wages and terrible labor conditions?”
President Obama insists this will be the most progressive trade deal in history and, according to his deputy press secretary, has told his negotiating team to “make sure that the labor, environmental, and human rights protections were not just included in maybe a deal letter or a side deal…but written into the text of the deal in a fully enforceable way."
The president argued on Friday that workers in countries like Vietnam would fare better under the trade accord.
"Under this agreement, Vietnam would have to raise its labor standard and set a minimum wage," the president said. "It would have to pass safe workplace laws. It would have to protect workers' freedom to form unions for the first time. That would make a difference. That helps level the playing field and it would be good for workers in Vietnam even as it makes sure they're not undercutting competition in the United States. That's progress."