Simon endorses NAFTA, angers organized labor



WASHINGTON (AP)—Sen. Paul Simon declared his support Wednesday for the North American Free Trade Agreement, siding with President Clinton while angering organized labor.

‘‘I think it’s in the best interests of the United States,’‘ Simon told reporters at the White House after meeting with Clinton.

Simon did not seem bothered by union opposition to the pact that would erase most trade barriers among the United States, Mexico and Canada.

‘‘I have never been in anybody’s hip pocket. I call them as I see them. Sometimes I differ with my good friends, but I expect them to be my good friends in the future,’‘ said Simon, D-Ill.

Organized labor, which has supported Simon throughout his political career, charged that the senator was abandoning unions at a critical time.

‘‘When we need him, he’s walking away from us,’‘ said Margaret Blackshere, secretary-treasurer in Chicago for the Illinois AFL-CIO. ‘‘I wouldn’t say that today, Sen. Simon is our good friend.’‘

She would not say if Simon risked losing an endorsement from the AFL-CIO’s 1.25 million members in Illinois.

‘‘Today our members are very upset. Whether they will carry that anger and frustration to 1996, they will have to guide us,’‘ she said.

Labor and other NAFTA opponents believe U.S. manufacturers will rush production jobs south of the border to save on wages. They also worry about lax enforcement of environmental and workplace standards in Mexico.

Simon, however, found NAFTA’s benefits ‘‘make this a fight worth spending political capital to win.’‘

Simon said the agreement would strengthen the nation’s economy and add jobs but hurt some industries. In the meeting with Clinton, Simon pushed for a jobs program for displaced workers.

Clinton said later he was working with Congress on the issue, and noted the need for training for workers affected not just by NAFTA but also by companies shrinking to become more competitive.

Simon said NAFTA would raise Mexico’s standard of living. That would help reduce illegal immigration and allow Mexicans to buy more U.S. goods.

He said defeating NAFTA would hurt relations with Mexico and Latin America, who might turn to other trading partners such as Japan.

And the senator believes democracies pay more attention to the environment as their standard of living improves.

Simon joins Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Chicago, as the only announced Democratic supporters of NAFTA in the Illinois delegation. Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, D-Ill., who is leaning in favor, scheduled a news conference Thursday to announce her position.

Simon is not the only Illinois lawmaker to get Clinton’s attention.

Rep. Tom Ewing, R-Pontiac, has rounded up conservative Republicans whose support for NAFTA could waver because of a proposed tax increase.

The proposed $2.5 billion in higher taxes would offset money lost when NAFTA wipes out most tariffs and other barriers to trade among the United States, Mexico and Canada.

Clinton needs strong GOP support in the House, where the agreement faces a tougher test than in the Senate. The vote is set for Nov. 17. Republicans are counted on to provide about one-half of the 218 votes needed for passage, even though they are in the minority.

‘‘I think the president, if he wants our votes, is going to have to accommodate us in this issue,’‘ Ewing said.