Trade Group, US Officials Rally for Free Trade

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Free-trade agreements with other countries will create demand for U.S. products overseas and create more U.S. jobs, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and others said at a Thursday rally.

While public sentiment against free trade has grown in recent months, supporters of free-trade agreements need to get their message out, said Gary Shapiro, CEA's president and CEO.

"The whole world is watching us to see what we do on this important issue," Shapiro said at a rally near the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. "Are we going open and competitive ... and welcome competition, or are we going to close our doors and retreat and be insular?"

The trade group was joined by U.S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez, six U.S. lawmakers and officials from South Korea and Canada at the free-trade rally, the second stop in the CEA's 28-state bus tour supporting free trade.

While other countries are negotiating trade agreements with each other, the U.S. Congress has stalled three free-trade agreements, with Columbia, Panama and South Korea, Gutierrez said. "We are standing still, so the world is passing us by," he said.

Several tech-related trade groups have pushed for Congress to approve free-trade agreements, but many Democrats in Congress have expressed concern about trade agreements' effect on U.S. workers. Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama has opposed some free-trade agreements, saying the U.S. hasn't sufficiently addressed how to protect U.S. workers' jobs in a global economy.

In addition, a poll by CNN and Opinion Research released July 1 found that 51 percent of respondents saw free trade as a threat to the U.S. economy.

But lawmakers at Wednesday's rally, all of them Republicans, called on Congress to move forward with free-trade agreements. U.S. farmers need foreign markets free of tariffs to sell their goods, said Representative Wally Herger, a California Republican.

"It's important that we all try to get the message out around our country that trade can be and should be a win-win proposition," added Representative Jim McCrery, a Louisiana Republican. "The message from our policymakers to the people of the United States should be that the benefits of trade, while sometimes uneven, are also undeniable."

Free trade will allow CEA member companies to hire more U.S. workers, Shapiro said. The consumer electronics industry in the U.S. directly employs more than 4.4 million U.S. residents, and industry jobs pay on average US$25,000 more a year than the U.S. average, he said.

Members of Public Citizen, a consumer-advocacy group, attended the rally and passed out information opposing the Columbia free-trade agreement. The Columbia agreement promotes offshoring of U.S. jobs and exposes state laws protecting health and the environment to challenges in foreign tribunals, Public Citizen said.

Members of Public Citizen also protested Columbia's human-rights record, saying the government has ties to right-wing paramilitary units and to murders of union officials. Two members of Public Citizen held signs saying, "Trade with death squads can't be free," and "No FTA with human rights abusers."

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