Free trade deal stopped, unions celebrate

Labor is celebrating the 224-195 House vote April 10 to set aside the U.S.-Colombia “free trade” pact because of concern on Capitol Hill about the continuing murder of trade unionists in that country.

The vote, called for by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, derailed a Bush administration attempt to “fast track” the deal through Congress in 90 days. Under the customary fast track approach to trade deals, Bush wanted Congress to approve the measure by voting on legislation implementing the trade deal, not on the agreement itself.

Pelosi proposed a rules change to drop fast track and stop the 90-day clock. As labor leaders applauded the move, Republicans noted angrily that it was really a vote against the pact, which had been pushed by Bush as “vital to national security and to protecting democracy in Latin America.” AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, praising the vote, said “it should never come up on Capitol Hill again until the murders of Columbian trade unionists stop.”

International labor and human rights groups have blamed the Colombian government and right-wing paramilitaries it employs for the deaths of thousands of trade union activists there over the last several years.

Pelosi hinted that she might allow a vote on the pact sometime in the future, possibly in exchange for support from Bush for a second economic stimulus package that would include steps to help working families. Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) both flatly rejected this tradeoff, saying they were unalterably opposed to the Colombian pact. The two senators as well as Pelosi were part of a meeting between congressional and labor leaders where the new economic stimulus package was drafted.

“With the United States economy entering a potentially severe recession, with the trade deficit running at about $2 billion a day, and with unemployment on the rise, the last thing we need is another flawed trade agreement with a country that cannot even guarantee the rule of law, let alone basic human rights for its workers,” Sweeney declared in a prepared statement after the vote. “Congress should give its full attention to addressing the urgent needs of our failing economy. And there should be no vote on the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement until Colombia ends the violence against trade unionists and assures they can exercise their basic rights without fear.”

Change to Win Chair Anna Burger said she was glad that Pelosi is resisting strong-arm tactics by the White House and reasserting congressional authority over trade policies. Burger called for the House to refuse to consider any new trade agreements this year and said a new fair trade “model” is needed before any such deals are considered.

Burger said it would take years, not months, to ensure that the killing of trade unionists in Colombia is really stopped. “Trade isn’t free,” she said, “when thousands are killed for standing up for their rights in the workplace.”

jwojcik@pww.org