April 19, 2008


Why Free Trade Matters...

From: The Wall Street Journal

Unions for Free Trade
April 14, 2008; Page A14

WASHINGTON - In the bid for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's support for the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, Gustavo Palacio was no match for John Sweeney.

Mr. Sweeney, the protectionist president of the AFL-CIO, opposes the FTA. Mr. Palacio, a Colombian labor leader in a region that was a killing field until President Álvaro Uribe took office in 2002, wants the trade deal to go through.

Last week I met with Mr. Palacio, the leader of a miners union, and eight other labor leaders, who had traveled here to speak on Capitol Hill about the importance of the FTA in the struggle against poverty and violence in their country. They represent industrial unions, which, unlike the dominant public-sector unions in Colombia, are not aligned with hard-left politics. On Wednesday, in the middle of their visit, Mrs. Pelosi announced that she would stuff the FTA in the freezer, ensuring it cannot come up for a vote without her approval. Perhaps she put it next to her conscience, which also seems to be in cold storage during this election year.

Poverty warriors in the U.S. and Colombia are stinging from Mrs. Pelosi's dirty trick. But it is not the end of history; there is another chapter to write, and in it, Mr. Palacio and millions of Colombians struggling for a better life will overcome the barriers put in their path by American politicians.

The anti-FTA case in the U.S. has been built on two pillars of propaganda. The first is that under Mr. Uribe's leadership, labor unions have suffered disproportionately as a target of assassins. This is false. Murders of labor activists have been reduced sharply under Mr. Uribe, from 196 the year he took office to 26 last year.

Why were unionists getting murdered at such a high rate prior to Mr. Uribe's presidency? In part it had to do with the historical ties between some of the dominant public-sector unions and Colombia's hard left. These organizations have their roots in an anti-American, antidemocratic, antimarket ideology shared with the country's Castro-backed insurgents. Tragically, this has put the dominant unions on the left side of Colombia's violent politics for decades. Those who took up weapons to fight guerrilla aggression have been on the other side of the conflict.

Thousands of civilians, not just left-wing labor activists, have been killed in Colombian violence over several decades and it is not over. One of the union leaders I met with last week is new to his job. His predecessor, who was pro-FTA, was murdered in November.

Even so, things are better than they have been in a long time, thanks to Mr. Uribe. He's restored the state's law-enforcement role, and increased the budget in the attorney general's office to prosecute political crimes. He's also created a special security detail for union activists. No Colombian president has done so much to protect organized labor.

The second anti-FTA myth is that Colombia's largest unions, whose leaders are opposed to trade, are representative of the country's work force. It's true that the big unions represent 86% of all organized labor, but total union membership accounts for just 4.5% of the workforce. This is a decline from a decade ago when membership was 6% of the work force.

The cause of this low rate, the visitors to Washington told me, is the radicalized political agenda of the leadership in the large unions. It can be summed up as "down with the government, down with the imperialists, down with the International Monetary Fund." This rhetoric doesn't fly with most Colombians. They believe that, beyond the U.S. appetite for traditional Colombian exports – coffee, bananas, coal and oil – there is an opportunity to discover new U.S. markets that benefit workers. In a letter to the AFL-CIO dated March 28, the group also charged that the leaders of the large traditional unions are "more interested in achieving personal privileges than in working on behalf of the workers."

It is for this reason that Mr. Palacio and the union leaders I talked with last week want to form a new "centralized trade union" that will be "independent, democratic, pluralistic" and search for "harmonized agreements" with employers. They already represent workers in textiles, utilities, the food and beverage industry, banana growing, metal working, flowers, construction, shoes, confections and fruit growing, as well as Mr. Palacio's miners. Their numbers are small but they believe that they can recruit in the private sector – where 90% of Colombian workers are employed – by offering an alternative to the status quo. They are not afraid to support viewpoints that are shared by the government or the companies.

One example is the FTA. Mr. Palacio says his union of 1,500 workers supports the FTA for two reasons: security and investment. The state of Antioquia, where Mr. Palacio works, has been somewhat pacified under Mr. Uribe. But he says that, if the area hopes to keep the peace, it needs jobs for young people. By bringing investment to the region, the FTA will improve employment prospects. The agreement is also expected to boost the overall wealth of the region, which means better social services and infrastructure.

The other union leaders I talked with share this view. They see the FTA as a tool to attract investors, improve working conditions, and provide higher paying jobs. The former leader of a banana-workers union in Antioquia told me that his former union backs the FTA because it will mean that growers can import machinery, making life easier for workers.

Does any of this matter to the cynical Speaker? Not a bit. She has Mr. Sweeney's backing for November and has stuck it to a U.S. ally in the war on terror to boot. Perhaps if Bogóta had emulated say, Syria, in opposing the Bush foreign policy, it would have a better chance with Mrs. Pelosi.

Write to: O'Grady@wsj.com

Copyright 2008 - The Wall Street Journal

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