Sunday, September 21, 2008

Labor and the Colombia Free Trade Agreement


by: Phillip Cryan, Foreign Policy In Focus

Colombians have expressed opposition to the US-Colombia free trade agreement. The US labor movement plays a central role in establishing the terms of debate around the agreement with Colombia and keeping Democratic members of Congress in line. (Photo: Global Exchange)

When Congress failed to pass the Colombia Free Trade Agreement earlier this year, there was little doubt on either side of the aisle about who should take primary credit for the pact's defeat: organized labor. Whenever Democrats explained their opposition to the agreement, they started and finished with the issue of violence against Colombian labor leaders. At every opportunity they pointed out that Colombia leads the world in assassinations of unionists. To the Bush administration and most Republicans in Congress, the trade pact's failure was a clear case of the AFL-CIO holding their Democratic colleagues hostage.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) summed up the case against the trade deal that ended up winning the day - for the moment, at least - nicely. "Many Democrats continue to have serious concerns about an agreement that creates the highest level of economic integration with a country where workers and their families are routinely murdered and subjected to violence and intimidation for seeking to exercise their most basic economic rights and [where] the perpetrators of the violence have near total impunity," he said. This is different political terrain than where debates over free trade deals are usually fought.

Human Rights

Far more than any previous debate over a trade deal, the political contest over the Colombian agreement has come to focus on questions of basic human rights - and labor rights, in particular - instead of the usual back-and-forth about protectionism, minimum acceptable standards, technical aspects of the agreements' design, and the proper definitions of "free" and "fair." Organized labor in the United States "made Colombia a unified bottom line," said Jeff Crosby, the president of a Communication Workers of America (CWA) local in Lynn, Massachusetts and a longtime activist on Colombia policy within the labor movement. As a result of that political effort, together with the simple fact that "Colombian human rights is so obscene politicians did not want to be associated with it," the trade deal went down, Crosby told me.

"The year 2008 may enter history as the time when the Democratic Party lost its way on trade," a Washington Post editorial mourned. While the Colombian accord was never officially voted down - one of the reasons the debate over its passage is still with us, as we'll see in a minute - it was nevertheless the first bilateral trade deal Congress rejected. For many Democrats (remember Mark Penn, Hillary Clinton's strategist who wound up quitting her campaign over his lobbying for this agreement?) as well as Republicans, this was a sad event indeed. The Post editorial - the title of which likened Democrats' choice to saying "Drop Dead, Colombia" - took on the human rights issues central to the debate directly, castigating opponents of the agreement for their "decreasingly credible claims of a death-squad campaign against Colombia's trade unionists."

Never mind that Colombia's own foreign minister admits her country continues to lead the world in the number of unionists assassinated each year; the numbers assassinated have been going down, and U.S. labor has ulterior motives. Oh, and Colombian President Álvaro Uribe is also a demigod (not to mention the only remaining close ally the United States has in South America), so the "death-squad" claims must be overblown.

Yet out of more than 2,000 documented cases over the last two decades of Colombian unionists being target="_blank">murdered, there have been convictions in less than 50. (There are conflicting sources on the exact number.) In the vast majority, there has been neither a suspect nor an investigation. But a focus on assassinations - and the decline in the annual numbers assassinated over the last three years, compared to earlier this decade and the 1990s - obscures the range of forms of violence and intimidation Colombian unionists face. Labor leaders are followed, harassed, threatened. Funeral bouquets show up at their homes. In a meeting a few years ago with regional labor council members in the northern industrial city of Barranquilla, I learned of three bombings of union offices in the city. None of the attacks had killed anyone, but the message they sent to all union members - and, even more so, potential union members - was no less clear for that fact. (A few months later, one of the participants in that meeting - a nurse - was in fact murdered by paramilitaries.) And the worst violence may come in much subtler forms.

Collective Bargaining

"There's something just as serious as murder happening to our unions," Carlos Rodr’guez, president of Colombia's United Workers Federation (CUT, the largest national federation of unions), told me in an interview back in 2004. "It's what's happening to collective bargaining. Collective bargaining has been 'disappeared' in Colombia." Through the rapid proliferation of new forms of "independent contracting," aggressive policy reforms seeking "flexibilization" of labor and capital markets, and persistent intimidation if not outright extermination of unions, "trade unionism is disappearing." Public-sector unions get eviscerated when the state privatizes services; and private-sector unions get replaced by the redefinition of workers as "independent contractors" (who sign contracts every three or six months, and "bargain" as individuals) or by company unions. Rodr’guez said he had received death threats almost every day for months, but when I asked him what was the biggest threat facing Colombia's labor movement he didn't hesitate, and he didn't say death threats or murder: the proliferation of this "contracting," he said.

So the ground onto which U.S. organized labor placed the debate over the Colombia Free Trade Agreement - respect for basic human rights, including the right to organize a union and bargain as a group - was entirely appropriate. Yet their success in achieving the first defeat of a "free trade" deal in Washington may prove short-lived.

Rule Change

Members of Congress have not voted on this trade deal. Its apparent defeat earlier this year came through a rule change. Congress voted to revoke President George W. Bush's "fast track" authority - a promise from Congress to vote on all negotiated trade pacts within 90 days of their submission by the executive branch, and to vote them up or down with no ability to make amendments - not to reject the Colombia FTA. At the time, everyone knew that the proposal on the table - and the one Bush was publicly pressuring Congress to quickly approve - was the Colombian agreement, and that the revocation of "fast track" was in effect a rejection of that pact. But the absence of a direct vote left the door wide open for the trade agreement to return to the public agenda when political circumstances change. And the Uribe government's hopes do not rest exclusively on a McCain victory in the November elections - though that would certainly make things easier. After all, Charlie Black, one of McCain's closest advisors, has lobbied Congress for the deal on behalf of Occidental Petroleum for several years. And of all the U.S. companies known to be engaged in or suspected of wrongdoing in Colombia, Occidental is probably the one with the single bloodiest record.

A number of leading Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), have made ambiguous statements about their intentions and expectations for the Colombian pact, suggesting they see the door as open too.

The Colombian government, for its part, certainly has not given up. In early September, it sent more than 80 people to Washington for a lobbying blitz aimed at convincing members of Congress to take up the FTA during the "lame duck" session after November's election, regardless of the party affiliation of the president-elect. In an 11-page document the lobbyists distributed to members of Congress (which can be viewed online), the Colombian government makes defensive arguments about labor rights and ethnic minorities issues - striving to address the concerns of the group that has so far defined the debate over the accord (organized labor) and the caucus that has been most attentive to and active on human rights issues in Colombia since Plan Colombia began (the Congressional Black Caucus). Roughly one in four Colombians is of African descent, and the caucus has established strong ties over the last few years with Afro-Colombian organizations and leaders. Therefore, two pages of the lobbying document are devoted to a group of Afro-Colombian business leaders' plea for the U.S. Congress to approve the pact. On a different page, a supposed Colombian labor leader reassures U.S. legislators that "the claims of widespread violence against unionists do not correspond with reality." Then the Uribe administration cites the fact that "new laws have been proposed to [the Colombian] Congress to favor the unions" - good things like extending the prison sentences for those convicted of murdering unionists, and making the determination of the legality of a strike a matter for the courts (instead of the executive branch) to decide - as evidence of progress on labor rights in Colombia, neglecting to mention whether these proposals passed (they must not have if they're listed as "proposed," who proposed them, and whether the Uribe administration supported or opposed them.

What's to Come

Even if their effort to get the Colombian accord onto the agenda for the end of this year fails - again, regardless of who wins the White House - they will push hard for the new Congress to vote, and vote the right way, on it early next year. The Colombian government has spent millions of dollars on the effort already; there's no reason to spare expense, in lobbying and public relations, now. And they seem to think they still have a good chance of success, with a number of Democrats ready to vote in favor of the pact. When a dramatic hostage rescue (the word "dramatic" is a serious understatement - it was cinematic, incredible) brought the world's attention to Colombia for a few days this past July, free-trade boosters wasted no time trying to establish some connection between their case for the deal and the rescue mission on op-ed pages and the airwaves. While the logic of that connection remains tenuous and implausible, some of the good feeling generated by the rescue does seem to have transferred - somehow - to the pact's fans. Both the trade deal and the rescue mission are seen as extensions of the personal will (and righteous might) of the revered Uribe. Thus to question any one of his initiatives is to question the man himself - and doing that may well prove tantamount to announcing your membership in the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, Colombia's largest guerrilla group).

The only way the Colombian deal will remain the first accord of its kind defeated in Washington, it's clear, is if organized labor continues to play the central role in establishing the terms of debate around basic human rights and keeping Democratic members of Congress in line. This is no small task and investment, and the unions that have taken a leading role on Colombia policy over the years - the Steelworkers in particular - and the federation leaders who have been responsive to their members' concerns about Colombian brothers and sisters deserve much recognition and thanks for the work they have done, along with urgent encouragement to continue it. The unions clearly need, and have depended upon in a number of ways, nonprofit organizations working on Colombia: solidarity efforts like Witness for Peace, Killer Coke, School of the Americas Watch, International Labor Rights Forum, and others; but it's even more clear that without the political heft of organized labor, those groups could never have come close to defeating a trade deal.

Organized labor's continued leadership is absolutely vital, as lawmakers and officials launch a series of attempted retreads and revivals. The year 2008 may yet enter history as the year when the Democratic Party made a decisive turn away from the globally reviled "Washington Consensus" and toward an economic policy that truly puts people first - but whether it does so or not is entirely up to all of us.

Let's remember, after all, what sorts of winds and forces truly make history: the only reason we're fighting to prevent a Colombia Free Trade Agreement today, instead of living with an established FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas) forcing trade on terms dictated by the United States on the entire Western hemisphere, is that people throughout the Americas - many groups and organizations outside organized labor, but with organized labor playing always a critical strategic role - fought, with striking and unexpected success, to defeat what seemed to most people at the time like the inexorable forward march of history.


Phillip Cryan, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, is a Masters candidate at the University of California, Berkeley's Goldman School of Public Policy. In 2002 and 2003, he lived and worked in Colombia as a volunteer for Witness for Peace. He has worked as a community organizer, policy analyst, and writer since then.

Editor: Emily Schwartz Greco.


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