A Tale of Two Free-Traders

Free trade is supposed to be a two-way street that, in both directions, leads to the same place - prosperity.

That's certainly the case for Flavio Dealmeida, a weaving-machine operator whose textile company has thrived since flinging itself into an export boom.

But for Nancy DeWent, free trade has led so far to a dead end. She is one of 200 workers laid off as Swingline, the staplermaker, moves jobs from its Long Island City, N.Y., plant to a factory in Mexico.

This single mother of a nine-year-old boy is losing 20 years seniority, $11.58-an-hour, and generous benefits.

"I don't know what I'm going to do - they've taken just about everything away but my pride," she says.

And as the US economy grows more dependent on trade, more workers, like Ms. DeWent and Mr. Dealmeida, will find trade either a curse or a blessing.

Free trade bonus...

Dealmeida nearly fell into his pot of gold. He lost his former job as a cabinetmaker in 1991 when his employer in Fall River, Mass., unexpectedly shut down. Soon the native of So Paolo, Brazil, found work at Quaker Fabric Co., also of Fall River, just as it was beginning to ship upholstery overseas.

"We realized that in order to succeed, we had to succeed overseas," says Larry Liebenow, president of Quaker. Since 1992, export profits have encouraged the company to added 350 workers to its 1,800 worker payroll.

Now exports deliver 20 percent of the company's $196 million in annual revenues. "I wouldn't be surprised if some day half of our revenues came from overseas," Mr. Liebenow says.

"This company has gone from something out of a Charles Dickens novel to a wonderful place to work," says Dealmeida. A father of two, he makes $11.05 an hour.

"Free trade is an excellent, excellent idea, he says."

... and bitterness

"Free trade is destroying a lot of lives," says DeWent. During her two decades at Swingline, she saw the company give scores of immigrants their first footing in America.

"Yugoslavians, Romanians, Filipinos, Puerto Ricans, Haitians: People from all over the world started in America in this factory - we were a big gumbo soup," she says. "But now we're being shut down and the big family we had in this factory is being broken up," she says.

Indeed, experts on both sides of the issue say the US must do more to help workers idled by foreign competition.

Initiatives ensuring that idled workers can transfer their health insurance and pensions to another employer and gain training in a new field would enable more workers to thrive from free trade, they say.

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