A conversation with Matt Coffey at the National Tooling and Machining Association offers a peek at the tough road facing free trade. Coffey, who is president of NTMA, supports free trade. But he's waging a campaign against the practice of companies like Lear Corp. and Visteon Automotive Systems, which demand that their suppliers give back part of the cost of work already finished — or risk not getting future business. Some of those suppliers are NTMA members.
Lear and the like have that kind of leverage, he believes, because the world economy lets them move work globally.
Coffey uses words such as "exploitative" to describe how some multinationals act. He told his trade group in a recent speech that such companies "go where they can make the most profit, they avoid government regulation and adverse legal systems by moving work around the world, and some engage straight out in human exploitation."
Coffey is quick to point out that he does not consider free trade the enemy. Rather, it is the behavior of some companies, he said.
But some of the language made him sound like he belonged on the streets of Seattle protesting the world trade talks, and not working as a lobbyist for the small businesses in the mold- building industries.
Clearly, people are asking more questions about trade. The rioting on the streets of Seattle brought debate about the impact of lowering trade barriers to a much wider audience, and focused attention on who the winners and losers are in world trade.
You can argue for the overall, long-term benefits of free trade. You can make a good case that the United States, in particular, benefits when trade's police department, the World Trade Organization, is stronger.
Some mold builders are undaunted by globalization, and argue that the path forward is in striking partnerships around the world or finding niches where their skill shines.
Others wouldn't mind rebates, if only the automotive industry would pay its bills more quickly, they say.
Some mold builders point out that the intense cost pressures they are feeling from manufacturers like Ford Motor Co. and Lucent Technologies Inc. only reflects the marketplace. After all, we all want the best deal on the cars and computers we buy, and usually don't think much about the behavior of the manufacturer.
NTMA is obviously a small trade group, without a lot of clout here. But free trade debates are no longer just about business interests vs. labor or the environment, if they ever were. Coffey's action shows there's plenty of nervousness about globalization among small manufacturers.
Toloken is Plastics News' Washington-based East Coast reporter.