By Mark Drajem
July 16, 2009

July 16 (Bloomberg) — U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk says the Obama administration is “going to bat for American industrial workers” through greater protection of labor rights and more aggressive monitoring of overseas trade practices.

Kirk, in a speech today at a U.S. Steel Corp. plant near Pittsburgh, will pledge to force countries including Peru and Guatemala to live up to labor commitments they made in trade agreements, according to a copy his prepared remarks.

“We will immediately identify and investigate labor violations, before they can disadvantage American workers,” Kirk will tell workers in Braddock, Pennsylvania, according to remarks provided by his office. “And if they won’t fix their labor problems, we will exercise our legal options.”

Unions led the push to get stiffer labor provisions added to free-trade accords, and Kirk’s pledge to step up enforcement may help win their support for stalled deals with Panama, Colombia and South Korea. Kirk said legal action would still be a last resort, saying “vigorous oversight” and negotiation are faster ways of resolving trade disputes.

William Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council in Washington, which represents companies such as Ford Motor Co. and Caterpillar Inc., said the Obama administration needs both enforcement and new free-trade initiatives.

“Enforcement is good, but a trade policy has to have more than one leg,” he said.

Kirk, who has been on the job for four months, has had to drop plans for a quick congressional vote on a pending free- trade agreement with Panama after Democratic lawmakers, including Representative Michael Michaud of Maine, protested. Michaud complained that Obama was continuing the Bush administration’s trade agenda, which he says costs U.S. jobs.

Fair Trade

“We just want to make sure the rules of trade are fair,” Michaud said in an interview yesterday.

Kirk said he plans a greater focus on two areas of trade enforcement: Food safety restrictions that keep out U.S. meat products and technical rules that discriminate against industrial goods.

Hog futures have fallen about 16 percent since April 23, as Russia, China and other countries barred imports of U.S. pork because of a so-called swine flu outbreak. The U.S. and European Union reached a temporary solution to a two-decade old EU ban on imports of beef treated with hormones earlier this year, a solution Kirk heralded as a demonstration of how negotiations can solve longstanding problems.

Michaud and representatives of steelworkers say they want the administration to do a better job of guarding against cheap imports as well. Obama faces a September deadline to decide if he will put tariffs or quotas on $1.7 billion of Chinese automobile tires, in a case brought by the United Steelworkers.

“The action Obama takes in September will speak much louder than any words Ron Kirk says this week,” Scott Paul, the executive director of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, a coalition of steel companies and the Steelworkers union, said on July 14.

To contact the reporter on this story: Mark Drajem in Washington at