North Dakota groups weigh in on controversial trade deal

GRAND FORKS -- North Dakota business and labor groups are mirroring their national counterparts' stances on a major multinational trade agreement. Like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Greater North Dakota Chamber supports the Trans-Pacific Part...

GRAND FORKS -- North Dakota business and labor groups are mirroring their national counterparts' stances on a major multinational trade agreement.

Like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Greater North Dakota Chamber supports the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And like the national AFL-CIO, the North Dakota chapter opposes it. That's perhaps unsurprising, but what remains unclear is how congressional delegations from North Dakota and Minnesota will vote on the deal.

The agreement, commonly referred to as the TPP, has wide implications for the U.S. economy, from manufacturers to farmers. It seeks to strengthen economic ties between the 12 countries involved by reducing tariffs and increasing trade.

Farm commodity groups in North Dakota would see the largest benefit under the deal by reducing barriers to foreign markets, said Dean Gorder, executive director of the North Dakota Trade Office.

Nancy Johnson, executive director of the North Dakota Soybean Growers Association, said about 70 percent of the more than 180 million bushels of soybeans North Dakota produces a year go to the Pacific Northwest for shipment to Asia. North Dakota has increased its number of soybean acres from 4.5 million to almost 6 million over the past few years, she said, meaning bigger markets are needed.


"There are about 500 million consumers in the countries that are involved in the TPP, and a lot of those consumers are rising in the middle class and eating more poultry and pork, which soybean meal is a big component of," Johnson said. "Really, the bottom line is the countries in the TPP are those Asian countries that are our primary customers."

But not everyone is convinced the agreement would benefit North Dakotans.

Waylon Hedegaard, president of the North Dakota AFL-CIO, pushed back against the characterization of the TPP as a free trade deal and said it would make it easier for companies to move jobs overseas to places with lower wages and poor human rights records, such as Malaysia.

"It's a document and a set of rules that protects investors' rights and investors' money far more than it protects human rights or the people in these countries it affects," he said. "How can North Dakota or the nation as a whole possibly compete with a country that is--and this is a direct fact--where workers, in places, are held at gunpoint?"

For his part, Gorder doesn't foresee any North Dakota manufacturers leaving the state as a result of the TPP, but he acknowledged its wider effect on American manufacturing is unknown.

Yea or nay?

North Dakota's three largest export markets, Canada, Mexico and Australia, are involved in the TPP, as are Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Brunei, New Zealand, Chile and Peru. Trade officials from those countries signed the agreement in February, but Congress still has a say.


Both North Dakota Sens. John Hoeven and Heidi Heitkamp, a Republican and Democrat, respectively, are still reviewing the deal.

Rep. Collin Peterson, a Democrat who represents western Minnesota, is undecided on TPP, spokeswoman Liz Friedlander said. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., said the deal needs to be "closely scrutinized," and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said she'll continue to review it.

Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., however, is now leaning toward opposing the deal. He said he's heard concerns from constituents about labor protections and currency manipulation.

"If I had to vote today, I'd vote no," Cramer said.

But Cramer won't have to vote today or likely any time in the near future. The controversial trade deal is likely too hot of a political potato to handle in the middle of an election year, and Klobuchar said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said lawmakers won't consider it until after the election.

"With the presidential election, this is kind of on the back burner," Hedegaard said.

Both Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders oppose the TPP, although Clinton spoke positively of it while she was secretary of state, while Republican front-runner Donald Trump has called it a "horrible deal."

All three members of North Dakota's congressional delegation voted last year to give the Obama administration "fast track" authority to negotiate the trade deal, while Peterson and Minnesota's senators voted against the measure.


Lucrative markets

While questions over the deal remain, the North Dakota Trade Office has said it will help open the lucrative Japanese market to wheat producers. The trade office said in October that 74 percent of tariffs on U.S. products going into Japan -- the largest buyer of U.S. wheat -- would be removed.

"Any time you lower tariffs for North Dakota-grown products, it's a positive," said Bob Sinner, president of SB&B Foods in Casselton, N.D. "The consumption of breads in Asia is going up."

Sinner was less familiar with other aspects of the vast deal. Hedegaard cited that complexity, and the secrecy surrounding negotiations, for a lack of public awareness.

"The general public honestly has no idea that this iceberg is ahead," he said, adding his group plans to continue putting pressure on elected leaders.

Andy Peterson, president and CEO of the Greater North Dakota Chamber, argued in an opinion column that North Dakota jobs would not be sent overseas as a result of the TPP.

"I think, given our skill at manufacturing things, our skill at innovating, our skill at getting better, faster and cheaper, that even with higher labor costs, we can still compete," he said in an interview.

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