By Kelly Conklin
Thirty-seven years ago, my wife and I founded Foley Waite, an architectural woodworking company based in Kenilworth, New Jersey. My high school woodshop teacher, Mr. Thomas, instilled in me the pride of making things with my hands, and I’m incredibly lucky to have turned that passion into a successful small business.
We started with just the two of us working in a tiny shop, and now we have thirteen employees who are also highly skilled in our trade, allowing us to provide a very high level of quality and detail in each custom project we install across the tri-state area.
But like many others, our small business struggled through the Great Recession. And although we’ve slowly rebuilt, and we’ve been able to restore wages to their pre-recession levels, we are watching very nervously as Congress considers again making it harder for American small businesses to compete.
Even with the economy as fragile as it is, apparently some Congressmen and President Obama think it’s a good idea to “fast track” another bad trade agreement, this time with many low-wage countries in Asia that undercut businesses like mine. As a business owner, I think it’s a bad idea to give the President a blank check to negotiate another bad deal for the American economy.
For decades, we’ve heard that so-called “free trade” agreements will lead to higher wages, new jobs and more economic development. Free trade was supposed to be the panacea that will cure our nation’s economic ills.
But small business owners like me know better. These trade agreements have been anything but free, and they’ve given the advantage to huge corporations that make cheaper, low-quality knock-offs, costing me business and holding down wages for employees in my industry.
Outsourcing American jobs overseas doesn’t make our economy stronger. Instead, unbalanced trade agreements tip the scales against workers and employers who want to do the right thing and create jobs at home.
In my case, it’s because fast-tracked agreements like NAFTA – and the newly proposed Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) – devalue the work we do. We pride ourselves on family-supporting wages and high-quality work, but overseas companies can ignore wage standards, environmental rules, and labor laws, and end up paying their workers a fraction of what my employees earn. That puts downward pressure on prices and wages, which hurts both business and workers.
What this nation needs is smarter trade deals that lift up both business and workers. Trade agreements that get other countries to live up to our standards, rather than force us to compete downward, will be how my business grows and our economy grows. I want to value the individuals who make my community strong.
For me, this isn’t about “fairness” or “leveling the playing field.” After four decades building a small business, I know life isn’t fair, and that the playing field is never level. But going down the same road of previous failed trade deals challenges common sense.
The question is crystal clear: do we need another bad trade deal? The answer is a resounding, “no!” Congress should reject fast track and move towards an economic policy that values American work, American manufacturing, and American jobs.
Conklin is the co-owner of Foley Waite in Kenilworth, NJ. He is also on the National Executive Committee of The Main Street Alliance, a national network of small business coalitions working to build a new voice for small businesses on important public policy issues.