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Free Trade Advocates Face 'Difficult Time'

The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and other groups pushing for free trade pacts have a sales job to do with the U.S. public, even if they have statistics on their side, a former congressman and free trade supporter said.

Many Democrats see free trade as a "net loser for many of the people they represent," said former U.S. Representative Victor Fazio, a Democrat who represented a California district near Sacramento.

While free trade can have long-term benefits for the consumer electronics and other U.S. industries, it's a "difficult time" for the U.S. economy, and people are scared about losing their jobs, said Fazio, speaking at CEA's Washington Forum Wednesday.

Backers of global trade need to tell better stories about its benefits, added Chris Padilla, under secretary for international trade at the U.S. Department of Commerce. Trade opponents often highlight individuals who've lost their jobs, he noted.

"The opponents of trade tell stories; the proponents of trade break out charts and graphs," Padilla said. "We won't win that argument. We have to tell the human story of trade, and the human story of people who benefit from the global economy."

Padilla often tells the story of two women from South Carolina who used to sew jeans and lost their jobs. With U.S. government assistance, they were retrained and now work at a BMW plant and drive the luxury cars, he said.

The CEA released some of its own chart-worthy material Wednesday. The consumer electronics industry will generate US$1.4 trillion in direct business activity in the U.S., according to a study by PricewaterhouseCoopers. The industry employs 4.4 million U.S. workers, and 16 percent of the industry's U.S. employment is due to international trade, the study said.

The consumer electronics industry will pay $325 billion in salaries in the U.S. in 2008, with the average salary in the industry about 51 percent higher than the average U.S. salary, the report said.

"When America competes in the global marketplace, our nation's economy and workers win," CEA President and CEO Gary Shapiro said.

But Fazio said the U.S. government may have to address other issues, such as universal health care and declining home values before many Democrats are ready to support free trade, as they have in the past.

Universal health care would "go a long way to allaying the fears of people about trade and its potential impact on their livelihoods," he said.

Fazio called on free trade supporters to focus on other economic issues. "What's the new approach?" he said. "It certainly has to be a much better safety net for insecure, unhappy, nervous American workers."

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