AFL-CIO fights free-trade agreement with Colombia

Organized labor is pressing the House Democratic Caucus to reject a free-trade agreement (FTA) with Colombia no matter what changes the Bush administration agrees to make, and the message is resonating with senior Democrats.

Citing reports that in 2006, 72 trade unionists were murdered in the South American country for exercising basic labor rights such as striking, AFL-CIO leaders charge the situation for labor in Colombia is so hazardous that no renegotiation would be acceptable.

“I think the killing, if you will, of civil society in Colombia is a major problem,” Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) said after a March 26 hearing on what impact trade policies have on U.S. workers. “The question is who do you have the trade agreement with? The government, or thugs, or who?”

Miller, who is considered a trusted adviser to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said there would need to be an “awful lot of work” done to the Colombia FTA before he would support it, and declined to say whether there was a possibility it could be changed enough to earn his support.

The AFL-CIO has been pushing its message for weeks with members of the Ways and Means Committee and Democratic leaders, and is now extending the lobbying effort to rank-and-file members, sources said. This week they will join Colombia labor group representatives and opposition party officials in visits with U.S. lawmakers.

The effort comes as administration officials have been negotiating with Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) on possible changes to the Colombia FTA and two other pending trade deals with Latin American countries. The aim of the talks is to work out a deal by March 31 that could allow all three to be considered by the Democratic Congress.
The distinction drawn by the AFL-CIO concerns differences between the Colombia FTA and deals with Peru and Panama, which the group could endorse if satisfied with changes worked out by House Democrats and the administration. Labor groups want all three deals to require that countries meet International Labor Organization standards, but see a Colombian commitment to do so as insufficient.

“Everyone seems to understand our position,” said one AFL-CIO lobbyist, who was confident that Democratic leaders recognized a difference between the Colombia FTA and the other two deals. The AFL-CIO received no “push-back” when it sent a letter to House members on March 15 outlining its opposition, according to the lobbyist.

In that letter, AFL-CIO Director of Legislation William Samuel said Colombia’s record “sets it apart from Peru and Panama.” The letter criticized the current Colombian government for failing to conduct sufficiently thorough investigations of the trade unionists’ murders, and charged there was only one conviction in the 236 cases of murdered trade unionists between 2004 and 2006.

Business sources acknowledged the message from labor is making waves in the Democratic Caucus. “I do have a sense from people we talk to on the Hill that we think Colombia is going to be harder,” one lobbyist said.

However, the business sources charged a trade agreement would even the playing field for U.S. exporters, since most Colombian goods already enter the U.S. duty-free because of a preference program intended to help combat the drug trade. Failing to negotiate an FTA will not help the U.S. and does nothing to improve the Colombia labor situations, they say.

In addition, business sources argue a trade deal would help Colombia’s economy and could further stabilize the country, which could improve the situation facing organized labor in Colombia.

Finally, they take issue with charges from U.S. labor groups that trade unionists in Colombia are targeted because they are in unions. Teachers and politicians are also murdered in Colombia, as are other civil servants.

Business-group representatives supporting the Colombia trade deal are trying to thwart the message from labor by scheduling meetings of their own with Senate Finance and Ways and Means committee members.