Merkley visits shuttered Blue Heron Paper Co. mill to highlight need for ‘level playing field’

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) stood in front of the abandoned Blue Heron paper mill in Oregon City on Friday to highlight legislation that he introduced Thursday to crack down on unfair trade practices.

“The Level the Playing Field in Global Trade Act” would require that new free-trade agreements include enforceable requirements that foreign manufacturers pay adequate wages, maintain workplace safety standards and abide by environmental standards.

Companies or countries that fail to provide local prevailing wages would have to pay anti-dumping penalties, as they do for any other subsidy under current law. “Dumping” is currently defined as selling products to another country below the cost of production, so this bill would expand that definition. Failures would treated as unfair subsidies, and such foreign imports would be penalized.

Merkley said U.S. companies and workers currently face a trade disadvantage in a “race to the bottom,” which puts U.S. middle-class manufacturing jobs at risk and is fundamentally unfair to American working families. He is also concerned about the foreign workers, many of whom are forced to work in unsafe conditions for meager wages.

Former paper-mill workers joined Merkley at the event. After their mills shut down, like with Blue Heron’s bankruptcy sale, mill parts were dismantled and shipped overseas to countries that didn’t require U.S. safety measures or environmental protections and where workers were paid far less.

“It was tough to watch the impact that the closing of the paper mill had on our community and the families that counted on those jobs,” said Don Drager, a former Albany Paper Mill worker. “And to know that our jobs were being shipped overseas to a place that didn’t care about worker safety, living wages or putting limits on vast amounts of pollution made it even more difficult.”

This legislation proposed by Merkley also rewards companies that meet high standards on a global basis in wages, workplace safety and environmental compliance with streamlined trade and protection from enforcement actions. Merkley said that the U.S. Commerce department would work out the details for how companies or countries could become registered as “good guys.”

“Just a few years ago the factory behind me was employing hundreds of Oregonians and making paper here in America. Now it is empty and those Oregonians who once worked here are out of work,” Merkley said. “This underscores how important it is that we have trade policies that create a level playing field for American manufacturing. We must stop providing subsidies to companies that ship jobs overseas.”