In August 2004, Hector Alino Martinez and three other Colombian trade unionists were dragged out of their homes and assassinated in the streets of Caño Seco. The men were among 96 unionists killed in Colombia that year. But supporters of Bush’s drive to ram the Colombia Free Trade Agreement through Congress must think a few dozen murdered trade unionists a year is OK—because they are basing their support for the deal by saying the number of murdered unionists in Colombia has dropped off in recent years. After all, there were “only” 39 killed there in 2007.
Which is why the successful move by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to take Bush’s Colombia trade bill out of Fast Track is such a victory for workers here and in Colombia.
Bush really wanted to slam the Colombia deal through Congress. And because the trade agreement was negotiated while the now-expired Fast Track trade-promotion authority still was operative, lawmakers had only 90 legislative days to consider it after Bush sent it to Congress April 8. Now with the Colombia FTA out of Fast Track—a move none of its supporters anticipated—the trade deal is “dead.” According to whom? According to Bush:
…that bill is dead unless the speaker schedules a definite vote. This was an unprecedented move.
For once, he got it right. Democrats in Congress caught supporters of a trade deal flat-footed. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) whined that the vote was “cheating.” Not so. Rules give the House the authority to revoke Fast Track, which in addition to creating a timeline for votes on trade bills bars lawmakers from amending agreements—so there’s no way to make sure Bush-backed agreements include protections for workers’ rights or the environment.
Under a Republican-controlled Congress, Bush steamrolled every piece of anti-worker, anti-consumer legislation he could, like the deeply flawed and massively overpriced Medicare prescription drug legislation in 2003. Now, he and his Republican backers face opposition. But it’s up to us to make sure we hold the feet of Congress to the fire so it’s not revived as a result of pressure from the bill’s supporters. Supporters like visiting Harvard professor Edward Schumacher-Matos, who recently wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece:
Union members have been assassinated, but the reported number is highly exaggerated. Even one murder for union organizing is atrocious, but isolated killings do not justify holding up the trade agreement.
Dismissing brutal murders as “isolated” incidents is bad enough. But “isolated” in no way describes the killings of 2,550 trade unionists since 1986.
Clearly, moral arguments like the sanctity of human life don’t work with the Bush crowd. Those like Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, who says the Colombian government is making progress in decreasing violence against labor leaders. In fact, the Colombian government has successfully prosecuted less than 3 percent of cases involving murdered trade unionists.
So what would a trade deal with Colombia do? Essentially, it would continue to do the same as all the other bad trade deals Bush has negotiated—destroy jobs. And those aren’t only low-wage jobs that have moved—we are losing ground in advanced technology products, autos and even aerospace. Tradable services—from call centers to legal research to airline maintenance—also are increasingly being off-shored. In the past five years, American workers have lost almost 3 million manufacturing jobs, many due to the failures of our trade policy. Meanwhile, the Bush trade agenda contributed to a trade deficit of $712 billion in 2007.
Workers in countries on the other side of these trade deals aren’t benefiting, either. Last week, Benedicto Martinez Orozco, co-president of a Mexican trade union, described what happened to workers in his country after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was passed:
“In the first years, thousands of middle-sized businesses closed, and that left thousands more workers without jobs,” Mr. Martinez said through an interpreter.
The result, he said, was that there were many people who became very rich, while now 14 years later, about half the population of the country is either underemployed or unemployed.
In just the last six years, he said, wages have deteriorated by 60 percent; so while the minimum wage is 51 pesos, or between $4.50 and $5 a day, a kilogram of meat, which is about 2 pounds, costs 70 pesos.
In Mexico, Mr. Martinez said, the climate for workers and their ability to organize has gotten more harsh since NAFTA was passed, as large corporations have pressured the government to change its labor laws. Recent regulations have limited collective bargaining and restricted the ability of workers to strike.
Maybe now we’re getting at the crux of the push for these deals: They don’t guarantee any rights for workers, they weaken unions and create a low-wage labor pool global corporations can exploit.
Much of the major press has been following along in lockstep with the argument that the Colombia trade deal must pass, regardless of that government’s disregard for human rights. But The Washington Post especially outdid itself with an editorial whose brutally insensitive headline, Drop Dead, Colombia, illustrates all too well the disconnect between the elitist press and the suffering of working people. The Post wasn’t highlighting the egregious murders of trade unionists. It was bemoaning the successful move in the House to derail the bill.
The support for this measure is so strong among powerful lawmakers and their media mouthpieces, we must keep up the pressure to ensure if it ever gets introduced—this year or next—Congress will vote it down. Click here to tell your representative to oppose a trade deal with Colombia until its government makes real progress in protecting the lives and rights of union members.
USLEAP also has created two Mother’s Day cards you can choose from to send to your loved one, letting her know you made a donation to the labor group’s Flower Workers Economic Justice project (Colombia produces 62 percent of all the flowers brought into the United States).