I was told while growing up that this is a nation of opportunity. Today, in Aroostook County, opportunities are fewer and further between.

I’ve worked at the Irving Forest Products Pinkham sawmill in Nashville Plantation for the past 32 years. I’ve lived in the Masardis-Ashland area all my life (54 years). In August, Irving announced it was closing the mill permanently and eliminating 44 jobs. This is yet another blow to our town, our county and to our Maine economy.

Recently we had a petition for Trade Adjustment Assistance benefits denied by the U.S. Department of Labor. We had congressmen, senators and many others working for us. But apparently we have not yet sent enough of the Maine logs across into Canada to be milled. It is hard to believe that this is totally legal and is a result of a trade policy that our federal government voted for.

This is nothing new. Since the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, implemented in 1994, Maine has lost 24,000 good paying jobs. Jobs and layoffs aren’t just numbers. Jobs mean people who can put food on the table. Up here and in towns across the state such as Millinocket, Jay and Rumford, that is something that is getting harder and harder to do.

Good wages and job security mean strong communities and a healthy society. We need to pay to have good schools, good roads and good medical services. We can’t educate our children, pave our streets or get care when we are sick if we can’t even pay our electric bills.

Many people’s lives here in Maine are changing. Jobs that remain are not much more than minimum wage jobs, which nowhere meet the middle-class wages we used to earn for a hard day’s work.

Our country has outsourced jobs because of NAFTA and similar trade deals. We all know why these jobs are going abroad. These trade agreements allow cheaper labor, fewer benefits and, in many cases, slave labor. Things we could have made here in Maine are now being made around the world by workers who don’t have a say in their workplace, who work in unsafe conditions and who do not get paid nearly a living wage. NAFTA and the other trade deals like to encourage companies to dodge labor and environmental laws by outsourcing our jobs.

We see it every day, politician after politician helping themselves and their corporate interests, not thinking about the working families they represent. In my eyes, people should be in office to help the citizens, not just for power and money.

I know that I am living in a dream world.

Decisions about trade agreements should be made for the interests of the people, not just greedy CEOs. Corporations can go abroad, find loopholes in our system and literally take us to the limits, while they cash in on our demise.

I have been a registered Republican my whole adult life but recently unenrolled from that party. I thought Sen. Susan Collins did some good things for us. Now, I can’t support her. She voted in favor of the Peru Free Trade Agreement, a NAFTA expansion. She refuses to take a position on the horrific Colombia Free Trade Agreement. Colombia murders trade union leaders who speak up for workers’ rights. Why can’t Collins see this is hurting us? She has had almost two years to take a position on the Colombia FTA but she still can’t make up her mind. Whose side is she on? Whose interest is she representing? She is the only member of the Maine delegation who hasn’t come out against it.

Rep. Tom Allen, like Sen. Olympia Snowe and Rep. Mike Michaud, is opposed to the Colombia FTA. He is also an original co-sponsor of Michaud’s TRADE Act, a bill that lays out a new direction for trade policy. If elected to the Senate, Allen will continue to fight for fair trade and working families like mine.

Trade can be a good thing, but we must create a new way of doing it so that it helps and protects the environment. Maybe then we can restore some of those dreams of the land of opportunity for our future generations.

Wendell Rafford of Masardis is president of United Steelworkers Local 4-1310.