President Barack Obama announced Saturday the government has reached a trade agreement with South Korea that would strengthen economic ties between the two countries, the largest pact by the United States since the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement in 1994.
If ratified by Congress, the U.S.-South Korea Free Trade Agreement would eliminate 95 percent of tariffs on consumer and industrial goods within the next five years.
With the unemployment rate at 9.8 percent for November -- a seven-month high -- Obama is under heavy pressure to create and protect American jobs and critics of the deal insist that it will further erode the manufacturing base when cheaper South Korean cars and other products enter the market. United Stated and South Korean officials have been in negotiations on the agreement for several years, including a failed effort to reach a deal during the G-20 summit in November.
The United Steelworkers are not yet endorsing the pact, USW head Leo Gerard tells HuffPost.
Told that the United Auto Workers were reportedly backing the deal, Gerard said that his union, which also represents rubber and tire workers, would take its time. "I guess some people feel they're smart enough to make decisions based on rumors. I want to be more thoughtful," said Gerard. The union's board will meet Monday, he said, to discuss the pact.
"I'll have a direct discussion with Bob and our paths overlap, and sometimes they don't overlap," said Gerard, referring to Bob King, head of the auto-workers union.
The White House is not pressuring him to get behind the deal, he said. "There's no pressure coming my way. It's Saturday and I just finished grocery shopping," he said. The deal has to be viewed in a broader context, said Gerard. If the United States has no manufacturing base and no industrial policy, there will be no goods to export.
"Even if it was the best agreement ever negotiated in the history of mankind, if we have no industrial strategy, what the hell good is it?" he said, noting that China recently announced it would invest a trillion dollars into its high-tech manufacturing base.
The trade deal also has to be seen in the context of other demands the union has, Gerard said, such as the push to punish China for currency manipulation and what's known as the 301 petition, which the USW wants administration support for.
Gerard said the union would be discussing the treaty with its allies. "There's also some folks that we work closely with in the political arena and we'll chat with them," he said.
If the United Steelworkers doesn't officially oppose the treaty, the upshot may be the same as supporting it. "Leo Gerard staying neutral is the same thing as Leo supporting it -- at least within the AFL-CIO, which will serve to keep them on the sidelines," Jane Hamsher, founder of FireDogLake.com, said. "If Leo stays silent, it's mission accomplished."
Obama said he held off earlier because "the deal wasn't good enough." A few weeks later, negotiators came to an agreement Obama said would be a "win-win" for both countries and would create 70,000 American jobs.
"I'm not interested in signing trade agreements for the sake of trading agreements," Obama said. "I'm interested in agreements that create jobs."
Another group critical of the agreement is the U.S. Chamber Watch, a watchdog group that tracks the nation's largest lobbying organization, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In a statement to The Huffington Post, Chamber Watch spokeswoman Christy Setzer said,
It's crystal clear why the US Chamber is supporting a deal effectively shipping over 150,000 American jobs overseas: As the nation's chief cheerleader for outsourcing, the Chamber gets to go to bat for its top corporate members ... and gets a jump-start on one of its key goals for 2011: tax breaks for outsourcers.
The agreement was initially negotiated by President George W. Bush in 2007, but it failed in Congress. Obama was critical of the potential trade agreement with South Korea during his 2008 presidential campaign, claiming he would "not sign another trade agreement unless it has protections for our environment and protections for American workers" during a February 2008 campaign speech at a General Motors plant.
The new agreement, though, primarily tweaked protections for U.S. auto manufacturer styles -- leaving many of the problems Obama campaigned against intact, said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch.
"Merely tweaking the 'cars and cows' market access provisions of Bush's NAFTA-style Korea trade pact but leaving in place the offshoring-promoting foreign investor protections is a slap in the face to the majority of Americans who, according to repeated polls, oppose the same old trade policy that has cost millions of American jobs," Wallach said in a statement.
The auto industry had been critical of the previous agreement. Ford Motor Company argued the 2007 version of the agreement would hurt U.S. auto manufacturers by immediately cutting truck tariffs and allowing many South Korean auto makers to export duty-free into the United States.
"We believe in free trade, and this isn't it," Ford wrote in advertisements leading up to Obama's November trip to South Korea. "In fact, Ford has supported every trade agreement approved by Congress since 1965 -- until this one."
Now, though, South Korean negotiators agreed to delay some tariff changes by at least five years, allowing U.S. auto makers to benefit from increased trade without South Korean manufacturers flooding the U.S. auto market. The agreement will leave a 2.5 percent tariff on auto imports into the United States in place until the fifth year instead of allowing South Korea to immediately export cars to the U.S. without tariffs.
Alan Mulallay, Ford CEO, said in a statement Friday he applauds the revised agreement.
The U.S. International Trade Commission has estimated the tariff cuts would increase exports of American goods by about $10 billion.
Obama said the new provisions of the agreement would help the auto industry develop electric cars and strengthen green energy.
The United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, or UAW, also praised the changes to the agreement in a statement released Friday.
"These changes represent an important opportunity to break open the Korean market for U.S. businesses and workers and boost American manufacturing jobs, particularly in the automotive sector," the UAW said in a statement.
Congress must ratify the bill before it becomes official.
"I look forward to working with Congress and leaders in both parties to approve this pact," Obama said. "Because if there's one thing Democrats and Republicans should be able to agree on, it should be creating jobs and opportunity for our people."