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By Patrick Temple-West. Medill News

Amid the crowded debate over the causes of the housing crisis and rising inflation, the discussion of America’s competitiveness—or the demand for U.S. labor—has been lost in the clamor. But participants of a town hall meeting on globalization sponsored by the Financial Services Forum tried to revive the issue.

Two Illinois congressmen, Democrat Rahm Emanuel and Republican Peter Roskam, met with 11 corporate and labor leaders at the Illinois Institute of Technology Monday to offer ideas for education and trade policies.

The Financial Services Forum, a non-partisan organization of 20 chief executive officers from some of the country’s largest corporations, said its goal was to wake up the issue of America's market competitiveness.

Despite agreement among the town hall participants that U.S. labor faces increasing competition from abroad, it was apparent that a standoff continues between corporate and labor interests.

“Somehow, globalization gets reduced down to trade,” Emanuel said referring to U.S. trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was signed into law in 1993. “[We] cannot allow the conversation to be reduced to one piece of the puzzle.”

Emanuel and the other participants advocated for education benefits to encourage young adults to stay in school. Among Emanuel's proposals are a mandatory year of post-high school education and simplified tax credits for returning to school.

“If you raise kids’ sights, they will meet them,” Emanuel said. “If you lower sights, they will meet them too.”

Roskam stressed a free-market approach to issues surrounding globalization and noted that French President Nicolas Sarkozy has praised the American free-market economy as a model France needs to imitate.

“He said, ‘you Americans understand better than anybody the power of the market place…that you don’t get something for nothing,’” Roskam said. Sarkozy campaigned on a promise to repeal France’s 35 hour work week to make the French economy more competitive globally.

Likewise, small business and corporate leaders attending the town hall meeting praised the benefits of globalization.

Sandra Westlund-Deenihan, president of the Schaumburg-based manufacturing company Quality Float Works Inc., described how global ventures transformed her family-run business into an international company.

“If a little company like us can do it, anyone can do it,” Westlund-Deenihan said.

The labor union representatives said they oppose free trade agreements that do not extend labor and environmental protections required in the U.S. to foreign countries.

“We have concerns that Congress is in a rush to get into these agreements,” said Jorge Ramirez, secretary-treasurer for the Chicago Federation of Labor. He criticized the Central American Free Trade Agreement, passed in 2005, for not extending protection to labor unions in the participating Central America countries.

The AFL-CIO, the largest trade federation in the U.S., filed a petition with the U.S. Labor Department in April saying Guatemala has not investigated the murders of several Guatemalan union workers—a violation of the CAFTA agreement.

“If those people unionize, they die,” Ramirez said of the Guatemalan workers.

As the presidential election nears, free trade agreements are poised to be a divisive issue between Democrats and Republicans. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, supports NAFTA and told voters in Youngstown, Ohio, that the agreement has been “a benefit to our country.”

The Democratic presidential candidates take the opposite position. Historically, Democrats have received the support of labor unions, which tend to resent free trade agreements that threaten job security in the U.S. Both Sens. Barack Obama, Ill., and Clinton, N.Y., have called for renegotiating NAFTA.

Robert S. Nichols, president and chief operating officer of the Financial Services Forum, offered a conciliatory position on the issue. While his group advocates for free trade, he said labor issues need to be addressed so that progress can begin in Washington.

“Right now the debate in Washington is either stop trade and focus on the domestic issues or just continue on trade,” Nichols said. “Our view is we’ve got to continue on trade but put a renewed emphasis on strengthening the areas of domestic policy that are in a state of disarray.”

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The Financial Services Forum is a non-partisan financial and economic policy organization comprising the CEOs of 18 of the largest and most diversified financial services institutions doing business in the United States.

The purpose of the Forum is to pursue policies that encourage savings and investment, promote an open and competitive global marketplace, and ensure the opportunity of people everywhere to participate fully and productively in the 21st-century global economy.