His message was lost beneath the shattering of store windows and the fog of tear gas in Seattle in November. But Illinois Mitsubishi retailer Joe O'Brien was on hand at the riotous meeting of the World Trade Organization to convey a message to fellow import auto dealers: Just because times are good, he warned, don't get lazy about auto trade issues.
O'Brien is finishing his yearlong chairmanship of the American International Automobile Dealers Association. He has had the strange experience of presiding over the trade group during a period of historically bad trade deficits for the United States - but also during a year in which auto sales were so good that few seemed to care.
Even as light-vehicle sales pushed toward 17 million units, the U.S. automotive trade deficit with the rest of the world soared in 1999. In the first nine months of the year, the automotive deficit rose 38 percent from a year earlier. The value of vehicle imports rose to $84 billion for the period - an increase of $16.5 billion from 1998, according to The Autoparts Report, a newsletter that tracks automotive trade.
'This is when you have to build relationships,' said O'Brien, who operates a Peoria, Ill., chain of 14 stores that represent 23 nameplates. 'There are a lot of newly elected officials in Washington. Some of the Congressmen who knew us and understood our issues have moved on. So it's important for us to keep making the effort to get our message out.'
During the World Trade Organization meeting in November, AIADA representatives endured tear gas and sidewalks blocked with protesters to meet with various trade officials, including U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky and Secretary of Commerce William Daley.
The import-dealer group is pressing for a repeal of the 25 percent duty on imported pickup trucks, arguing that a repeal would give global automakers more flexibility on where they build vehicles. The group also wants to see tariffs eliminated on autos and auto parts, and the creation of a new forum to resolve future trade disputes.
Lindsay Chappell is a Staff Reporter in Nashville, Tenn.