The president urged quick action on an issue Thursday night, that affects the jobs of hundreds of thousands of Illinoisans: foreign exports and imports.
He urged Congress to approve expanded trade with three countries.
It is a divisive issue in Illinois. Some companies and workers will win, others may lose.
With three shifts working around the clock to produce protein and vitamin supplements, skin cream and other products, Now Foods has literally run out of room at its factory in suburban Bloomingdale.
“We're experiencing really great growth in our company,” Now Foods’ Beth Pecenka said. “We have created 140 jobs for people here in Illinois. We are continuing to face the challenge of growing faster really quicker than we can handle.”
Family-owned for four generations, Now Foods has discovered foreign customers are willing to pay extra for its made-in-America guarantee of quality. About 10 percent of sales are overseas.
Now Foods believes it could really cash in, if the president and Congress could agree on pending trade deals with South Korea, Columbia and Panama.
“Free trade agreements are good for everybody,” International Sales Manager for Now Foods Philip Pittsford said. “They help us as a manufacturer of dietary supplements. They help other manufacturers of other types of products. It’s really about allowing our products to get in as those products come into our country.”
We found a very different view at Maze Nails in LaSalle County’s Peru, IL. Production worker Steve Pearson, a Democrat, said he and his Republican bosses agree on at least one thing: the proposed foreign trade deals are a bad idea.
“The politicians say free trade, but we want fair trade,” he said.
Founded in 1848 by Samuel Nesbitt Maze, the company is still owned and run by his descendants six generations later. But after a long downward spiral, Maze Nails now has 40 workers. There were 140 when Pearson was hired. A big factor: nails made in China typically sell for 25 percent of what Maze charges.
“If the buying decision is based solely on price, we're not going to win that battle,” Koch said. “But if they're concerned about the quality and the service and our longtime reputation, as well as their reputation, then we've got a lot better chance.”
Pearson, who recently returned to work after a 19-month layoff, said it was impossible to find any work that paid as well as Maze, where workers are represented by the Steelworkers union.
“There are jobs out there. They don't pay a living wage, and with health benefits. My daughter just went to college, the year I got laid off. I haven't been laid off in 23 years,” Pearson said. “It's a lot of pressure,” Pearson said.
Back at Now Foods, where the pressure comes from coping with explosive growth, they are pushing hard for Washington to expand foreign trade deals..
Democrats want to the free trade deals to include money for retraining and other help for Americans who lose their jobs as a result.