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Clinton Dispenses NAFTA Pact to Skeptical AFL-CIO

By Martin Kasindorf
Newsday

SAN FRANCISCO

President Clinton, insisting that "I would never knowingly do anything to cost an American a job," Monday defended his support for the North American Free Trade Agreement before a labor audience fearful that the controversial pact will funnel work to Mexico.

"Is it a perfect agreement? No," the president told 1,000 delegates to the AFL-CIO's annual convention. "But I don't want to make the perfect, the enemy of the better."

The labor organization, which is as friendly to Clinton on health-care reform and other issues as it is hostile on NAFTA, welcomed the president by clapping rhythmically to the strains of "Hail to the Chief" as he entered the ballroom of the San Francisco Hilton.

Nevertheless, the delegates made no secret of their disagreement with Clinton over the proposed agreement that would remove trade barriers across the borders of Canada, Mexico and the United States and is due for a congressional vote before the end of the year.

Before the president's appearance, Lane Kirkland, president of the AFL-CIO, lauded Clinton as "a proven friend of labor," but denounced the trade agreement as a "lethal poison pill" drafted by former President Bush, a Republican.

"Regrettably," Kirkland said, "the president (Clinton) has concluded that he has no choice but to pursue it. We are of a deeply held contrary opinion."

Clinton played down his differences with labor over the issue by devoting more time in his hourlong speech to such administration achievements as the family and medical leave law, and tax credits for the working poor. He drew applause when advocating his anti-crime bill and education reforms that the labor movement has endorsed.

All of these improvements in American life will be necessary to strike "a new balance between security and change in this country," Clinton said, theorizing that Americans now fear change because they are insecure under global economic pressures.

His pitch for health-care reform was well-received by an audience that has fought for some of the best health coverage available to American workers.

"I am pleading with you to help me pass this bill," Clinton said. "No matter how good your health care is now, don't you believe for a minute that you can't lose it," he said, drawing more applause.

"The most important thing to me today," Clinton told the union members, "is that you know that this administration shares your hopes and your values and your dreams and the interests of your children."

Clinton acknowledged that the trade agreement "has become the symbol of the legitimate grievances of the American working people about the way they've been worked over for the past dozen years."

But Clinton rejected arguments that the trade pact would lead American companies to relocate in Mexico because of lower worker wages and less costly environmental laws there.

Clinton said recently negotiated side agreements to the trade pact would raise labor and environmental costs in Mexico, reducing the relocation incentive that caused hundreds of U.S. companies to build in Mexico during the 1980s.

Further, Clinton argued, passage of NAFTA would increase U.S. exports to a Mexican market with which the United States is enjoying a $5.8 billion annual trade surplus. More American jobs would result from the increased business, Clinton said.

If Congress fails to pass NAFTA, American jobs could be lost should Mexico turn to Germany or Japan for a similar trade deal, Clinton said.

"I would never do anything to cost an American a job," Clinton pledged twice during his speech. "That's not the business I'm in."