Labor leader: No Colombia deal in 2011

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said he doesn’t believe the White House will move forward with the Colombia trade deal this year due to concerns about labor rights.

Speaking Thursday at the Council on Foreign Relations, the union federation leader took aim at Colombia’s record of violence against union members and said the White House will not move the Colombia, Korea and Panama trade agreements together, as lawmakers have demanded. 

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“It’s not my sense that they intend to move forward this year with all three of them. They are moving forward with Korea, obviously, but with Colombia … they have been unable to meet any of the benchmarks that we talked about,” Trumka said in response to a reporter’s question.

Trumka and others in the labor movement oppose the Colombia agreement due to the South American country’s poor success rate in prosecuting murders of labor officials.

The Obama administration has stated its desire to move the Colombia agreement this year. Earlier this month, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk testified before the Senate Finance Committee that the administration planned to resolve outstanding issues with the Colombia and Panama agreements this year and then submit them to Congress.

But Trumka said the Colombia agreement should be a non-starter until the country agrees to tackle labor protections. 

“Until they are capable, willing and able to do it, we shouldn’t sign an agreement with them or anybody else,” Trumka said. “We should choose our partners carefully and we should choose those where we are not going to aid and abet the denigration of the working population.”

Labor — a key political ally of Democrats — has not been happy with the administration’s trade agenda, though the United Auto Workers and the United Food & Commercial Workers have lent their support to the reworked free trade deal between the United States and South Korea. 

Business groups and Republicans, meanwhile, have grown increasingly impatient with President Obama's lack of progress on the pending trade deals.

Senate Republicans threatened this week to block all trade-related nominees by the administration until Congress votes on all three agreements. At a hearing Thursday, Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), chairman of the House Trade subcommittee, blasted the administration for not moving on the Colombia deal even as other countries sign agreements with the country.

Others are calling for action on all three agreements. In an interview with The Hill, Terry McGraw, president, CEO and chairman of McGraw-Hill Companies, said the administration should call for a vote by Congress on the pending trade pacts.

“We have been at it for a long time. Pencils down. Take a vote,” McGraw said. “I think that the support for the three agreements is there.”

McGraw is also chairman of the Emergency Committee for American Trade, a pro-trade business group. The business executive said the stalling on the three trade deals is hurting other key elements of the administration’s trade agenda, such as having Russia join the World Trade Organization or moving forward on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

“The answer is clearly yes on this one,” McGraw said. “To the policy folks, ‘Hey, put on my desk what a robust trade agenda looks like.’ That conversation is not going on.”

McGraw said, however, that the president has been a major advocate for trade, as evidenced by his trip to India last year. Obama’s upcoming trip to South America presents “a huge opportunity” to tout U.S. trade again.

“In India, what the president was doing in all the talks he gave, he was selling and he was selling hard — ‘U.S. goods are fabulous goods, you need them, we can help, and we have to address export controls.’ That was being the chief salesman,” McGraw said. 

In his speech before the Council, Trumka said the AFL-CIO wants to work with the White House to revamp its trade agenda, starting with the TPP.

“Here is a chance to make good on the president’s commitment to craft a new trade policy for the 21st century that makes sense for working people and not just for multinational corporations,” Trumka said.

Further, Trumka said he has had discussions “genuinely and seriously” with the administration about how Colombia could improve its labor record. But the labor leader demonstrated how emotional unions’ opposition is, recounting how many union members were killed in Colombia last year.

“If 51 CEOs were assassinated in Colombia, how many people would say that we should sign the agreement? Raise your hands,” Trumka asked the crowd. “Look at that. Not very many.”