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Craig Shields: Free trade works for my company and Chicago

Discouraging businesses from expanding to other countries is like standing in a shopkeeper’s doorway and turning away 95 percent of customers. It just doesn’t make any sense, and it hurts employment and wages here in the United States.

OPINION

That’s essentially what could happen if Congress doesn’t give the Obama Administration the authority to negotiate trade agreements. Trade agreements would help American businesses and expand our economy. More than 70 percent of the world’s purchasing power and 95 percent of its consumers are located outside the United States.

I understand the importance of reaching global costumers firsthand. My company, Graymills, is a small manufacturing firm located in Chicago. We build specialized parts for printing presses. You can see the products these pumps help print just by going to the grocery store – wine labels, candy bar wrappers, bread bags, and thousands of other examples.

There is a high demand for these pumps around the world, especially in the European Union. We currently export to more than 80 countries. Trade has allowed our company to grow here in Chicago, and it is critical for Illinois’ economy. In 2013, Illinois companies exported $66 billion in goods, which has supported many good, local jobs.

Right now, we face unnecessary challenges when we trade abroad. When I hear people talking about trade, they usually talk about tariffs. But non-tariff barriers are a much bigger problem for small companies like mine. For instance, explosion proof standards, part of the certification process for our products, vary in each new market we sell to. Meeting each new explosion proof standard costs us valuable time and resources.

And there is no rhyme or reason for these differences. If a pump isn’t dangerous in Chicago, it isn’t dangerous in Copenhagen.

Fortunately, the Obama administration is currently negotiating two significant trade agreements that would make doing business in other countries easier, helping exporters like Graymills create jobs here in the United States. One is with countries in the Asia Pacific, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the other is with the European Union, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Together, these agreements cover 60 percent of American exports.

Once the agreements pass, more American businesses will be able to unlock more opportunities abroad. Then they will be able to create new jobs and pay higher wages, just as we’ve been able to do at Graymills.

As a manufacturer who continued building products in Chicago while my competitors went to Asia, I understand the fear that trade agreements cost jobs. However, companies that wanted to ship their manufacturing overseas have already done so. These new agreements actually help us small exporters open new markets for American goods and services, making our economy more competitive.

But before the administration can finalize the trade agreements, Congress must pass legislation called Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), which was just introduced. Through TPA, Congress determines the priorities for the trade negotiations and agrees to a timely, straightforward vote on the agreement, without amendments. The administration, in turn, agrees to notify and inform Congress on the progress of the negotiations. Without TPA, there’s a good chance these crucial negotiations could fail.

Unfortunately, this issue has become another political football in Washington, and America’s economic competitiveness is at stake. The sooner Congress moves forward with TPA, the sooner companies like ours can open the front door and welcome new customers both domestically and abroad.

Craig Shields is the president and chief engineer of the Graymills Corporation in Chicago.