WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is now telling congressional Republicans, the biggest backers of so-called “free trade” treaties with Colombia, Panama and especially South Korea, that the president will not submit the pacts to lawmakers unless they restore trade aid for workers who lost their jobs to imports, first.

And while the White House has begun talks with key lawmakers on legislation to implement the treaties – legislation that, as a practical matter, the administration can write – the pacts have yet to be formally sent to Capitol Hill.

The most controversial pact, and the one that draws unanimous labor ire, is with Colombia. There, 2,580 unionists have been assassinated, virtually all by right-wing paramilitaries, in recent years.

The latest murder, on the week of May 13, was of labor lawyer Hernan Dario in downtown Cali. There has been little prosecution in Colombia, while some U.S. multi-nationals have paid the paramilitaries to murder the unionists.

The biggest pact in economic terms is with South Korea. It’s the largest since the jobs-losing North American Free Trade Agreement more than 15 years ago. But unions are split on that pact.

After the Auto Workers and Michigan lawmakers won up to eight years more in U.S. tariffs on imported Korean cars and trucks – while lifting Korean tariffs on U.S. cars and parts – the Autoworkers supported the pact. The United Food and Commercial Workers support it as well.

But the AFL-CIO, the Steel Workers, the Communications Workers and most other unions oppose the Korean pact, saying it would give too much power to multi-nationals and does not adequately protect workers’ rights here or in Korea.

All three pacts are hung up because the GOP-run House let the expanded aid for workers who lose their jobs to imports, called Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), lapse. Now the Obama administration wants TAA renewed and expanded first.

“This administration believes that just as we should be excited about the prospect of selling more of what we make around the world, we have to be equally firm about keeping faith with America’s workers” by renewing and expanding TAA, Obama’s U.S. trade representative, Ron Kirk told trade beat reporters.

Until an expansion included in the stimulus law, TAA was restricted to workers who could directly prove they lost their jobs to below-cost imports. In the stimulus law, it was expanded to suppliers and also to workers whose jobs depended on business from workers who had lost their jobs to imports.

In other words, TAA used to be just for workers who could prove their plant closed due to subsidized foreign competition. The stimulus law expanded TAA to suppliers of parts for that plant – and to the nearby diner where plant workers ate.

Those new sections of the law lapsed in February. Obama and Kirk want them reinstated before they send Korea, Colombia and Panama pacts to Congress.

Some top congressional Democrats have told the White House they may not support the trade pacts unless the expanded TAA is renewed. That’s important: The pacts were negotiated under now-dead presidential “fast track” trade authority, so Congress and labor can’t attach conditions to them, but must vote them up or down.



Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.