By David Shepardson
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio is introducing legislation aimed at preventing a new Pacific trade agreement from harming auto employment.
Brown, a Democrat, introduced a new bill, the 21st Century Trade Agreements and Market Access Act, to "ensure that American trading partners play by the same rules as the U.S," Brown said.
International Brotherhood of Teamsters President Jim Hoffa -- on a conference call with Brown and a Ford Motor Co. trade executive -- said the administration should be careful about new trade agreements, saying the 1.4 million members will put "pressure on the administration for a good agreement that opens markets."
"We are losing the war on trade," Hoffa said, saying free trade deals with Canada, Mexico, Panama, Korea and others "have all been disasters for jobs."
This month, Canada and Mexico have been invited to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade talks, leaving only Japan among major nations that have unsuccessfully sought to join the talks.
The talks are aimed at creating one of the largest free-trade zones in the world.
In addition to the United States, the other nations in the talks are Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said this month he doesn't support including Japan in the free-trade talks, a spokeswoman said.
Ford vice president of international government affairs Stephen Biegun said the company is reviewing the Brown bill, but supports efforts to make sure trade agreements are fair. Biegun says the reports that Brown would require more data about trade would help.
"It is just simply wrong the decision to put in that discussion a country which is demonstrably protected and closed to American exports," Biegun said.
U.S. automakers are sharply opposed to allowing Japan into the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks. They argue that the Asian nation hasn't done enough to open its market to U.S. auto exports, but they support allowing Mexico and Canada into the talks. Both are home to large numbers of automakers.
American Automotive Policy Council President Matt Blunt said Japan should not be allowed into the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Ford has led the opposition, with president and CEO Alan Mulally making the company's opposition known in meetings on Capitol Hill and the administration.
Japanese automakers reject claims that their market is not open.
"The notion that the Japanese auto companies have not done the hard work to compete globally is absurd. The fact is that Ford has chosen to essentially withdraw from the Japanese market and refuses to seriously compete there," said William Duncan, who heads the Japanese Automobile Manufacturers Association in the U.S.
A free-trade agreement could drop tariffs on Japanese vehicles entering the United States and make it more economically viable to build vehicles in Japan and export them to the U.S. The Japanese currently pay a 2.5 percent tariff on cars and a 25 percent tariff on trucks exported from Japan to the U.S.
Japanese automakers have complained about the value of the Japanese yen, which tends to increase the cost of its exports to the U.S. They have been talking about moving production outside of the country unless the yen weakens. U.S. automakers argue that such a move could amount to currency manipulation and an unfair trade practice.
Japanese automakers note the auto imports in Japan have been rising and question whether U.S. automakers are offering the right types of vehicles to meet Japanese consumer preferences
"At a time when too many Ohioans are still looking for work, we cannot sign a lopsided trade agreement that tips the balance against American automakers and workers. The rules of trade, and the processes for negotiating the rules matter," Brown said.
Last year, Brown sent a letter to President Obama raising concerns over the existing automotive trade deficit with Japan and seeking more support for American manufacturing in the agreement.
Brown's legislation would also require additional compliance reporting and streamline trade and export promotion activities to enable more U.S. producers, ranchers, and small businesses opportunity to reach new markets.