Unions turn up the heat on Colombia trade

WASHINGTON – With the House’s ruling Republicans poised to write draft legislation affirming the controversial trade pact between the U.S. and Colombia, labor stepped up its drive against the agreement, dispatching top U.S. unionists and a delegation of Colombian union leaders to lobby against it.


And the Communications Workers, who are leading the charge, added to it with a report showing how the Colombian communications company Telefonica denies its workers rights by forcing them into labor “cooperatives” that ban organizing and strip workers there of other protections, such as the minimum wage, too.

Meanwhile, the AFL-CIO launched an ad campaign pointing out how the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement is bad for U.S. and Colombian workers. Colombian and U.S. unionists and several lawmakers reiterated that at a Capitol Hill press conference on June 16.

The U.S.-Colombia FTA, first negotiated by anti-worker GOP President George W. Bush, is at the desk of Democratic President Barack Obama, who wants to send it to Congress for up-or-down votes, with no amendments. The GOP-run House Ways and Means Committee, which handles trade, plans to start work on it on June 21.

But trying to get congressional support – and to overcome the fact that right-wing paramilitaries, often paid by multi-national corporations, have murdered almost 2,600 Colombian union leaders in the last 15 and a half years – the administration negotiated a labor accord with the new Colombian government.

Obama also lined up strong support from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the big business lobby, for the U.S.-Colombia FTA. And Obama certified Colombia is meeting the first benchmarks of that labor accord’s protections of workers.

The Colombian union leaders and CWA President Larry Cohen said that it isn’t.

“The (labor) action plan by President Obama and (Colombian) President Santos is nothing more than a trick to get the free trade agreement passed,” said one of the six Colombian union leaders, Jose Diogenes Orjela Garcia, through an interpreter.

The plan “is not going to stop them from firing workers or murdering workers. Ten more have been murdered thus far this year, five after the plan was signed.”

“This action plan and other laws have not been discussed with Colombian workers,” added Johnson Torres Ortis, a leader of the Colombian sugar cane cutters union – a group that is predominantly Afro-Colombian, and the most persecuted.

Colombia is also notorious for not prosecuting murderers of unionists – or anyone else killed in its long left-right civil war – and it doesn’t protect the vulnerable. “Three of six members of our delegation have been threatened,” said Orjela Garcia.

“Companies refuse to put an end to the ‘cooperatives.’ They refuse to enter collective bargaining, and refuse to stop firing workers for seeking a union,” he added.

U.S. workers who want to form unions are threatened, harassed and fired, Cohen said. Colombian workers who want to form unions are threatened, harassed – and become victims of drive-by shootings, he declared.

Meanwhile, multi-nationals and other large companies benefit from Colombian laws that deny workers their rights, including the law allowing the collectives and others that declare Colombian workers independent contractors or ban them from bargaining.

Both groups of firms would benefit from the U.S.-Colombia FTA, the unionists said.

Cohen and CWA used Telefonica as the case study.

The White House-pushed action plan for Colombia to solve its labor ills has laudable aims and goals, the union study says. “But judging from early action, and based especially on the case study of Telefonica, we have little or no confidence the action plan will bring about desperately needed changes in Colombia.”

Spanish-owned Telefonica, among other things, uses private third-party agencies to avoid the requirement that it honor union-organizing mandates, hires workers as six-month temps through those agencies to do its telecom work – when a worker must be with a parent firm for longer than that to gain labor law coverage – and “fosters a climate of fear to maintain the status quo.”

“Last June, Telefonica fired 432 employees without justification and without notice.”  That “creates an effective and intimidating tool to prevent unionization and hold down labor costs,” the CWA report adds. CWA posted the report on its website.

The firm has 11,421 workers in Colombia, but at least 8,000 jobs there have been outsourced, thus denying workers their rights in another way.

CWA took the Colombian union leaders around to educate approximately 20 members of Congress. Three also came to the press conference, to explain the impact on U.S. workers, denounce the FTA and promise to educate their colleagues, too.

“When they have to compete against workers who are not allowed a minimum wage or overtime, who can’t stand up for themselves, how can American workers compete with that?” asked Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif. “There’s no freedom there.”

Photo: Public Citizen // CC 2.0


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.