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Business, labor spar over Colombia free-trade deal

Wall Street Journal, USA

Business, Labor Spar Over Colombia Free-Trade Deal

By John Bussey

10 July 2011

In the years of U.S. wrangling over whether to approve free-trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama, an especially visceral debate has marked the fight over Colombia. In this standoff, the South American nation is either:
 A bloody killing field where union activists are still at greater risk than anywhere else in the world, and a country not yet worthy of a trade accord with the U.S., or
 A near-failed state rapidly on the mend, a U.S. ally worthy not just of a trade deal but of increased investment by American companies looking for a bright emerging market.

U.S. business and much of American labor couldn’t be farther apart on this one. And while the loudest shouting is about unionists and the union movement in Colombia, it appears at times to mask an altogether different debate: whether trade pacts are good or bad for jobs at home.

All three trade deals are slowly moving toward a vote on ratification in Congress. But the unique issues involving Colombia continue to rattle the process. Michigan’s Sander Levin, the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, recently declared he wouldn’t support the pact unless certain language protecting worker rights in Colombia is included. He was joined by others in Congress voicing concern about the safety of union activists in the country.

Colombia is recovering from years of war between leftist guerillas, paramilitary groups and a weak government. The bloodbath killed thousands, including union activists often targeted as sympathizing with the left-wing guerilla movement. A vast cocaine economy exacerbated the violence.

An antidrug aid program, largely funded by the U.S. and aimed at bolstering Colombia’s security and civil institutions, helped begin a transformation of the nation starting in the late 1990s. Stability eventually brought economic expansion, a strengthened judiciary and a significant drop in violence and killings of all types. Union membership is up.

That was enough improvement for the U.N.’s International Labor Organization to remove Colombia from its watch list last year. And enough for the Obama administration, which has praised Colombia’s expanded human-rights protections, to press for the FTA.

The pact would eliminate a range of Colombian tariffs and is strongly supported by U.S. business, which sees a lucrative market in Colombia for its industrial and farm goods. John Murphy, of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, says U.S. exports to South America grew twice as fast as exports to East Asia over the past decade and a Colombia FTA "will fit into and build on that success."

The Obama administration says the pact will result in an increase in U.S. exports and the creation of thousands of jobs at home.

Human Rights Watch disagrees with the extent of change in Colombia that others see, and it told Congress so in March. Attacks on unionists, the group said, "remain alarmingly high," often perpetrated by successor organizations to the paramilitaries. It said Congress shouldn’t ratify the FTA until Colombia fixes the problem.

Union-related murders in Colombia have dropped sharply, to roughly 50 or below in 2010, depending on the source, from roughly 200 in 2001.

"It’s definitely better than it was," says Thea Lee, deputy chief of staff of the AFL-CIO, the federation of unions. "But is it acceptable? It’s absolutely not. ...There’s a climate of terror in Colombia." She says the U.S. has leverage over Colombia now—to prompt additional change—but will have less if the FTA is ratified.

Last month the union ran an ad campaign with a photo of a funeral for a murdered Colombian union member. The ad said more than 2,850 trade unionists have been killed in Colombia since 1986, and it urged a "no" vote on the FTA.

FTA proponents say that this is yesterday’s thinking and that the vast bulk of the killings happened years ago. The U.S. Chamber blogged that it located the photographer who took the photo in the ad and he said he snapped it in 1998.

"That’s kind of petty," says Ms. Lee. "We could have used a photo from yesterday because there was another murder yesterday."

A summary of the AFL-CIO’s opposition to the FTA on its website quickly shifts to criticism of FTAs in general: The Colombia deal is "another in a series of bad trade pacts" that have contributed to "massive job loss and shrinking paychecks" in the U.S, it says. It’s a suspect "trade model."

This appears to be the more essential argument of the AFL-CIO, which opposes all three of the FTAs. It also reflects broader sentiment among an American public nervous about the rise of overseas competition and the loss of U.S. jobs. In a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll in October, more than half of respondents said free-trade agreements have hurt the U.S.

Ms. Lee of the AFL-CIO says "the vehemence and passion with which we oppose the Colombia FTA" isn’t about trade models. It’s about violence against union members.

She says the AFL-CIO’s president, Richard Trumka, has a personal connection to the issue. A Colombian union leader, Dario Hoyos, stayed at Mr. Trumka’s home during a trip to the U.S. On his return to Colombia he was assassinated.

"They put a bullet through Dario’s head," Mr. Trumka told a gathering at the Council on Foreign Relations in March.

That sort of memory can be tough to shake, even after important changes take place in a nation such as Colombia. Dario Hoyos was killed March 3, 2001.