Obama defies unions with Colombia deal

President Obama broke with union supporters Wednesday over a controversial trade agreement with Colombia that is vociferously opposed by organized labor. 

The administration announced it would move forward with the deal after agreeing to an “action plan” with Colombia in which that country promises to make changes to its labor laws and improve its record of combating violence against union organizers. 


Obama will meet Thursday with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos at the White House to formally announce the agreement. 

The AFL-CIO expressed deep disappointment with the decision, which pits Obama against a core part of his political base the same week he announced his 2012 reelection campaign. 

“The action plan does not go nearly far enough in laying out concrete benchmarks for progress in the areas of violence and impunity, nor does it address many of the ways in which Colombian labor law falls short of international standards,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a statement. 

He said the action plan would leave the U.S. with “no leverage whatsoever” to enforce its terms once Congress ratified the trade deal. 

 “On the basis of the information provided to us at this time, we remain strongly opposed to the Colombia trade agreement,” Trumka said.

The Colombia agreement is a high priority for Republicans, who had threatened to hold up a trade deal with South Korea without a commitment on Colombia from the administration. In his State of the Union address last year, Obama vowed to double exports within five years, and the deals are key to that agenda. 

The White House is also making a keen effort to improve its ties to business groups, which have called for approval of trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. 

On a conference call with reporters, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said the plan should quell unions’ concerns over the country’s labor rights record and have a “positive effect on American jobs.” 

The action plan requires Colombia to provide better protections for union leaders and labor organizers, including by sentencing those who threaten union workers with jail sentences of up to five years. It also directs the Colombian National Police to assign 95 full-time judicial police investigators to help prosecute crimes against workers. 

Kirk said Colombia would act to approve most of the steps in the action plan before the deal gets a vote in Congress. 

Labor officials in the U.S. predicted a stormy and uncomfortable debate for the administration. 

“People feel passionately about it and yes, we’re going to fight hard. We just think it’s wrong,” one union official said.

Trumka said 51 union organizers had been killed in Colombia last year. He said he doubted the agreement would be moving forward if it had been 51 CEOs who were killed. 

Some unions said they would wait until more details of the plan were released before they weighed in.

“The administration has announced that the ‘Action Plan on Labor Protections’ will be released tomorrow. We will reserve comment on it until we review the details that are in it,” said Leigh Strope, a spokeswoman for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

Another long-delayed trade deal with Panama should be completed soon, administration officials said, setting up a busy year for Congress on trade.

Various unions oppose all three agreements, but officials have long made it clear that a line in the sand had been drawn when it came to the Colombia pact. 

“Throwing the Colombian free trade agreement into the mix brings out a whole new set of infuriated opponents — from the faith community to human-rights groups and even more of labor — to passing these leftover Bush deals,” said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. 

Business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers, praised the White House for moving forward on Colombia. 

“The bottom line is that Colombia is a booming market that has moved into one of the top 15 U.S. export markets in the world, but it could be even more,” said John Murphy, the Chamber’s vice president for international affairs.

Murphy said U.S. businesses face an average 15 percent tariff in Colombia compared to an 0.1 percent average tariff faced by Colombian goods entering the U.S. He said the trade deal would create a better playing field and help the U.S. compete with other countries also moving into Latin American with trade agreements. 

“The business community is going to be working hard to secure approval for all three agreements by July 1,” Murphy said. “As of today, we feel we have some wind at our backs.”

The agreement would appear to have the votes to clear the House and probably the Senate, but not without a fight from some Democrats. 

House Ways and Means Committee ranking member Sander Levin (D-Mich.), who supports the Korean trade deal, said while the administration has received “important commitments” from Colombia, “more work needs to be done.”

Levin did not explicitly say he would oppose the deal, however.