U.S.-S. Korea unions link up vs. free trade pact

Worried about the failure of “free trade” deals for workers and farmers, U.S. and South Korean unions are joining forces to oppose the proposed Korean-U.S. Free Trade Agreement.

The U.S. and the Republic of Korea held their first round of talks on the pact in Washington last month. The second round, in Seoul, ended acrimoniously July 14. President Bush “fast-tracked” the trade deal — enabling U.S. envoys to negotiate an agreement that can be submitted to Congress for a yes-or-no vote without amendments — but his fast-track authority runs out in mid-2007.

If passed, the pact would be the biggest for Washington since the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, and it would unite the world’s largest and 10th-largest economies.

But it’s the harsh results of NAFTA for millions of U.S., Canadian and Mexican workers, farmers and indigenous people that have the unions concerned.

In a joint statement the AFL-CIO, Change to Win Federation, Korean Confederation of Trade Unions and Federation of Korean Trade Unions said, “Over the last 12 years, NAFTA has accelerated and deepened corporate mobility and flexibility, while costing more than 1 million jobs and job opportunities in the U.S., putting increased downward pressure on U.S. wages, and undermining environmental and public health protections. In Mexico, workers’ wages have fallen or stagnated in real terms, while inequality has worsened, and the number of people in poverty has grown.”

The unions are demanding that any trade agreement guarantee workers’ rights — in particular the right to organize, environmental standards and protection of public services.

In June a delegation of Korean unionists came to Washington during the first round of free-trade talks. This month, a delegation from the AFL-CIO and the ILWU (the West Coast longshore union) went to Seoul for the second round. There, some 25,000 farmers, laborers, office workers, students and others demonstrated, while negotiators for the two governments held talks at a posh hotel on the other side of the city. Police attacked the demonstrators with steady water cannon bursts after some of the protesters pushed on buses and threw sand at police standing atop the vehicles.

The U.S. union delegation reported that at their July 10 joint press conference in Seoul, with 100 union members in attendance, more than 3,000 South Korean riot police showed up and “sought to intimidate” them.

“Police surrounded the stage and the 100 or so people who came for the press conference,” wrote ILWU communications specialist Marcy Rein on the AFL-CIO blog. “Police pushed and shoved people with their shields for a while, then pulled back and allowed the press conference to go on for a few minutes, then charged the crowd, yelling. They brought a tow truck to take the stage away.”

“We mounted the stage in the midst of a melée,” said Amy Masciola, international campaigns coordinator for the AFL-CIO Organizing Department.

Though the police completely disrupted the press conference, the labor leaders managed to make their statements from the stage, even if few observers could hear them.

The FTA is big news in Korea, said Masciola. “Everyone is talking about it.”

ILWU organizer Agustin Ramirez said many Koreans are concerned about how free trade will impact their lives negatively. “They see cheap rice from the U.S. destroying their rice industry, the way cheap U.S. corn destroyed farmers in Mexico. They see their pharmaceutical industry destroyed and fear laws encouraging energy-efficient cars will be out and SUVs will come into play. Members of the theatrical union worry that laws supporting local production of movies will be weakened.”

It was over pharmaceuticals that Korea and the U.S. cut short their second-round talks. South Korea has a list of drugs which are reimbursable under the country’s health insurance system. U.S. negotiators called that unacceptable and discriminatory. Apparently, say observers, the U.S. drug companies are anxious to get into the Korean market unfettered.

Besides pharmaceuticals and agriculture, the status of South Korean goods manufactured in North Korea is seen as another sticking point in hammering out the agreement. South Korea is building an economic development zone in the North as a jointly agreed-to step towards the country’s reunification.