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Editorial: Trade pacts, worker aid are good for our country

Senate leaders finally cleared the way this week for votes on trade pacts with Colombia, Panama and South Korea, and a separate vote on assistance for displaced workers.

All should pass.

The case for open trade is an easy one to make in Washington, not just for companies like Boeing but for Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories in Pullman as well, and for farmers who would have almost 50 million new palates to tempt in South Korea alone. That nation is Washington’s fifth-largest trading partner despite tariffs as high as 45 percent on apples and pears and 25 percent on cherries, wine and potatoes.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell estimates removing those tariffs could increase wine sales by 45 percent and carve out a bigger share of that nation’s $1 billion appetite for American beef.

More export activity by other states should generate more business for Washington ports, which are the closest to Korea.

Colombia and Panama are much further down the list of Washington customers, but SEL, for one, already offers customer support in Colombia.

Most senators had no problem with the export measure, but passage snagged on the inclusion of provisions that would extend Trade Adjustment Assistance to U.S. workers who lose their jobs because of foreign competition. The law’s roots go back to the administration of President John F. Kennedy, who said the nation – not displaced workers – should pay the cost of freer trade.

But TAA costs have risen over the years to around $1 billion, and coverage was expanded to include service workers under the 2009 stimulus program. Republicans balked at renewing the law through 2013. That was enough to stall a vote on the trade bills.

TAA may have its faults, but that would be a hard case to make before the thousands of Washington workers who have received income checks, training assistance, help moving and other assistance that got them back on the job. Former employees of Kaiser Aluminum, Agilent, Itronix Corp. and Key Tronic are among the many in Spokane who have benefited.

The Washington Employment Security Department says more than 5,300 state residents received aid during the 2009-’10 federal budget year, more than double the total for 2008-’09.

A department spokesman called TAA the Cadillac of retraining programs because enrollees are eligible for up to 130 weeks of unemployment assistance. But he noted that 74 percent of the trainees get new jobs with average earnings 85 percent of their last paycheck. Not bad considering many were among the most senior and well-compensated at their old jobs and start green in their new positions.

Washington should be a winner if the three trade pacts are approved. But, as Kennedy said, there are workers who, through no fault of their own, become losers. TAA should be renewed.

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Editorial: Washington state lawmakers scramble to keep public in the dark

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