On Cargill’s new FedByTrade website, the Houfek family tells how selling meat to foreign countries has supported two generations working at the company’s packing plant in Schuyler, Neb.
Four hundred miles north, in Hopkins, Brian Donovan, an operations manager in Cargill’s salt division, stands ready to explain how providing de-icing and water conditioning products to Canadians keeps dozens of U.S. workers on the payroll.
As President Donald Trump’s disparagement of free trade agreements pushes America away from multicountry pacts like the 11-nation Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the 23-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Mexico and Canada, Cargill, one of the world’s largest private companies, is pushing back.
The Minnesota-based shipping and agriculture giant has enlisted its 155,000-person workforce in a political trade war. It just launched FedByTrade, where its employees, customers and communities can relate stories of regular Americans who depend on international trade for their livelihoods.
The company also plans more direct outreach to rural communities and other places that profit directly and indirectly from global trade.
Cargill CEO David MacLennan said Trump’s “America First” agenda in his first year in office “defies past conventions and defies history.” The Trump administration’s insistence that big trade deals cost American jobs reveals that the White House does not have “a full enough understanding of the complexity of negotiating [trade] agreements.”
So at a time when MacLennan says free trade “has become surprisingly out of favor politically, and therefore socially,” Cargill believes it must connect the dots from things like meat packing and salt production in the global economy back to individual jobs in America.
“I can go to Washington and talk to politicians and to Cabinet members,” MacLennan told the Star Tribune. “But we think engaging our employees and our rural communities” to connect with Washington will put things in perspective.
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, who is now renegotiating NAFTA and who would be responsible for negotiating future deals, believes in tariffs to protect U.S. jobs. He thinks trade deficits are bad. And he specializes in two-nation trade deals instead of multination pacts like TPP, on which Cargill worked for years.
Lighthizer’s office declined to comment on Cargill’s new program. It referred the Star Tribune to the White House, which did not answer requests for comment. But in a September talk at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Lighthizer noted that Trump has long “been critical of the prevailing U.S. trade policy of so-called free trade deals and of their effects on workers. So we will have change in trade policy.”
“I believe — I think the president believes — that we must be proactive … and that we must use all instruments we have to make it expensive to engage in noneconomic behavior, and to convince our trading partners to treat our workers, farmers and ranchers fairly,” he said.
Minnesota corn and hog farmer Bruce Peterson says free trade agreements have treated him fairly. Peterson sells some of his products to Cargill. He said he’s glad the company is standing up to the administration. The “rhetoric coming from Trump” has a lot of people in the state’s vital agricultural sector “nervous,” Peterson said. If international trade, which is worth billions to Minnesota farmers, “all of a sudden falls apart, that could be really disruptive.”
While Cargill believes the economic statistics are on its side, the company recognizes that it will not win the trade debate on numbers alone. “Our plan is to collect stories and what we’re calling ambassadors for trade and then finding the best way to get those stories out, whether it’s through our website or others,” said Devry Boughner Vorwerk, Cargill’s global vice president for corporate affairs. “The more people we engage and [help] understand, the better outcomes we achieve.”
Still, for all the website postings, local newspaper op-eds and meetings with chambers of commerce, Vorwerk knows that “at the end of the day for trade, all roads lead to Congress and the administration.”
How many employees, customers and community members will take that path is anyone’s guess, said Bob Kudrle, an international trade specialist at the University of Minnesota. If Cargill’s strategy works, Kudrle believes other global businesses in other economic sectors will follow.
“I can’t think of anything that looks quite like this,” Kudrle said of Cargill’s new initiative. “Employees don’t normally get involved [to the degree that Cargill is asking]. But at this particular juncture, American companies must be hugely frustrated with the absolutely indefensible claims being made about the destructiveness of trade. Most economists are dismayed by what the administration is saying” about participation in the global economy.
On a recent business trip to South America, MacLennan said he and Vorwerk found themselves in the office of the president of a Latin American country.
“He lamented the loss of American leadership as it relates to open trade,” MacLennan said.
Nevertheless, complaints about free trade agreements costing American jobs are not limited to the White House. Nor are they the province of one party. Democratic congressman Rick Nolan, who represents Minnesota’s Iron Range, is a longtime critic of free trade agreements. These days he complains that the dumping of cheap Chinese steel in the U.S. has cost miners in his district jobs.
“While I absolutely believe that trade is good for our nation and the world,” Nolan said in a statement to the Star Tribune, “it must be fair trade that requires partner nations to abide by the same standards of living wages, health care and pensions, human rights and environmental protections as we do here in the United States. In the past, hasty and rushed trade agreements have resulted in hundreds of thousands of lost U.S. jobs, suppressed wages, as well as environmental damage and worker exploitation across the world.”
That has not been Brian Donovan’s experience at Cargill. He sees free trade agreements supporting dozens of employees around him. So he is on board with “D-Mac,” as McLennan is known to workers, Vorwerk and the rest of Cargill’s leadership team as it pushes back against the White House and others.
“I think of free trade as an opportunity,” Donovan said. If companies make good business plans, “opportunity means jobs and profits. In my role, I haven’t seen any negative impact with NAFTA. It only helped us sell our product.”