BANGOR – A panel seeking to learn how international trade agreements are affecting the lives of Mainers got an earful Thursday night.
Mainers from different towns, different occupations and different backgrounds spoke out about one thing all seemed to have in common: a strong desire to change the way the United States does business with other countries.
During the hearing before the Legislature’s Citizen Trade Policy Commission at Husson University, participants told personal stories of mill shutdowns and hardships for local businesses.
“When I first started [at Great Northern Paper in Millinocket], 3,000 people were employed there,” said Terry Whirty of Millinocket. “It was a town of 11,000. We had everything going for us. Now, the mill’s defunct. There are 5,000 people in town. We don’t even have a decent restaurant.”
Whirty, who spoke with emotion and the conviction of hard experience, told the lecture hall packed with state legislators and others, that he supports U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud’s Trade Reform, Accountability, Development and Employment Act, which would require the government to review and renegotiate existing trade pacts and would state what future agreements must do.
“I don’t think even that is enough,” Whirty said. “We’re not on a level playing field. We’re not level at all.”
As he was leaving the hearing, Whirty said he since has taken a job at the Katahdin Paper Co. mill in East Millinocket and is the president of United Steelworkers Local 12.
“I’ve become the wailing wall. All the people have lost their jobs, have lost their homes, have lost everything,” he said. “Who else are they going to talk to? They don’t understand what is going on. I don’t understand myself.”
During the hearing, commission Chairman Sen. Margaret Rotundo, D-Lewiston, told those in attendance that their voices do count.
“While international trade agreements are negotiated at the federal level, public input can and does have an affect on what happens in Washington,” she said.
Rep. Rick Burns, D-Berwick, drove from the southern tip of the state to speak out against the country’s current trade agreements, saying that the ultimate price of cheap foreign labor is too high.
“We’re losing 350,000 jobs a month in America,” he said. “These trade agreements happen without our consent and without our participation.”
While in many ways the speakers shared a litany of problems and concerns with the commission, Liam Burnell, a farmer from Union, broke some of the tension with a wry joke about the state of our national debt.
“Apparently we owe China almost everything,” he said. “I don’t know how this happened. I didn’t borrow anything from China.”
But Burnell said he does have a problem with resource extraction by a “foreign colonial power.”
“We fought a war to stop that back in 1776, and I think it’s a very good idea,” he said. “Transnational companies want to make as much money as possible, as quickly as possible. It’s like having gambling sociopaths run the country, and I don’t think that’s a good idea. If there’s money to throw around, we should be spending it on small business.”