Bush’s Trade War

President Bush ignored the advice of Democratic leaders and sent the Colombia free trade agreement to Congress on April 7. Bush’s action forces lawmakers to vote the pact up or down within 90 days.

Bush is pushing a 600-page trade agreement that, among other things, would give Colombia duty-free access to the US market for most of its goods and require Colombia to remove tariffs on US exports. It also would give US companies incentives to move offshore and expose basic environmental, health, zoning and other laws to attack in foreign tribunals. If that isn’t bad enough, Colombia’s government has been linked to paramilitary death squads that assassinate trade union activists. (See "Colombia's Free-Trade Killing Fields" by Jess Hunter-Bowman, page 17.)

Democratic congressional leaders had been negotiating with the White House—unwisely, in our opinion—in an attempt to address concerns of working people who are displaced when manufacturing jobs are sent overseas. Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., on April 3 said Democratic House leaders wanted to pass a Colombia free trade agreement, if they could work out a deal to help displaced workers, Reuters reported. “We want to do this,” said Clyburn, third-ranking Democrat in the House.

Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., was quoted April 4 by Inside US Trade saying his goal was to get a Trade Adjustment Assistance bill, which would provide assistance for displaced workers, signed by the president before they moved on the Colombia deal. “Once that occurs I think we will be in a much better position on Colombia,” he said. “Taking on these issues can clear the way, I think, for the pending trade agreements.”

But Bush was not interested in addressing worker concerns, any more than he cares about small businesses or family farms that are hurt by multinational corporations that are able to take advantage of globalization.

After Bush dropped the Colombia pact on Congress, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., snapped back in a joint statement: “President Bush’s statement today regarding his unprecedented decision to send a free trade agreement to Congress without following established protocols of congressional consultation is counter-productive, jeopardizing prospects for its passage. Under present circumstances, we cannot support the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement.”

Bush’s action also alienated Baucus, who said, “Forcing Congress to vote on the Colombia trade agreement without a chance to weigh in on the legislation is an abuse of the fast-track process for trade agreements, and may well turn supporters and potential supporters of the Colombia agreement into opponents of the deal.”

Lori Wallach of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch said the agreement was already in trouble in Congress because of Colombia’s shameful record of labor leader assassinations and violence against Afro-Colombian communities. “By insulting the Democratic congressional leadership in such a public manner by forcing a vote without addressing their concerns, President Bush will guarantee both the first defeat of a trade pact by Congress and that the administration will get the blame for that outcome.”

Teamster President James Hoffa called the trade deal “an insult to every American who works for a living ... The Teamsters, the Change to Win federation and the entire labor movement will work tirelessly to defeat this job-killing trade deal that never should have been negotiated in the first place.”

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney called the agreement another in a series of bad trade pacts negotiated by the Bush White House. Those deals have contributed to a US trade deficit of $712 billion in 2007, massive job loss and shrinking paychecks, he noted. Such trade deals have contributed to the loss of 3 million manufacturing jobs in the US since 2001.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, says the Colombia deal betrays small businesses, workers and consumers and won’t be much assistance for Colombian workers, who earn little more than $600 a month. “This FTA is much less about finding new markets for American goods than it is a continuation of this administration’s failed trade policy—a policy that exploits workers in developing nations, fosters unsafe working conditions and allows unsafe products and food into our country.”

Colombia remains the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade union member. Thirty-nine trade unionists were murdered in 2007, and another 12 have been killed in 2008. Of the more than 2,500 murders of trade unionists since 1986, only 3% have resulted in convictions.

Trade concerns helped Democrats take control of the Congress in 2006 as 30 House seats and seven Senate seats flipped from “free trade” to “fair trade.” But Democrats are still too willing to consider Bush’s flawed trade deals. In November 2007, the House approved the Peru free trade agreement 285-132, with 109 Democrats in favor and 116 opposed. The Senate in December approved the pact 77-18.

Bush’s bluff came one day after Mark Penn quit as Sen. Hillary Clinton’s chief campaign strategist after it was reported that Penn had met with Colombia’s ambassador to the United States to discuss the trade agreement in his job as CEO of Burson-Marsteller Worldwide, a PR and lobbying firm that had Colombia as a client—at least until Penn said he made a mistake by meeting with the ambassador. Sen. Clinton, who opposes the Colombia pact, reportedly will continue to consult with Penn. The New York Times reported that Colombia also has hired Glover Park Group, a firm set up by former Clinton White House aides including Joe Lockhart, who was chief spokesman for the president. (Howard Wolfson, Sen. Clinton’s campaign communications director, was a partner at the firm but has taken a leave of absence.) The firm is focusing on moderate Democrats who might be persuaded to disregard party leaders and organized labor and vote in favor of the deal.

Other lobbyists for the Colombians include Johnson, Madigan, Peck, Boland & Stewart—whose partners include another former aide in the Clinton White House, Bill Danvers—and Andrew Samet, a deputy secretary of labor in the Clinton administration, the Times noted. Former Clinton aides, including Mack McLarty, the former counsel to the president; Donna E. Shalala, the health and human services secretary; and Leon E. Panetta, the onetime chief of staff, also have come out in support of the deal.

Sen. Barack Obama, in an April 2 speech to the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, called for an overhaul of our trade policy. “What I oppose—and what I have always opposed—are trade deals that put the interests of multinational corporations ahead of the interests of Americans workers—like NAFTA, and CAFTA, and permanent normal trade relations with China. And I’ll also oppose the Colombia Free Trade Agreement if President Bush insists on sending it to Congress because the violence against unions in Colombia would make a mockery of the very labor protections that we have insisted be included in these kinds of agreements. So you can trust me when I say that whatever trade deals we negotiate when I’m president will be good for American workers, and that they’ll have strong labor and environmental protections that we’ll enforce.”

Congressional Democrats should call Bush’s bluff and reject this misguided Colombia pact if for no other reason than Bush is entirely unworthy of confidence. Democrats also should keep their distance from the “Security and Prosperity Partnership” that is the cover for Bush meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Felipe Calderon as well as corporate oligarchs April 21-22 in New Orleans. The group is exploring ways to expand North American trade (see “What Corporate Takeover Means for the Heartland” by Ruth Caplan and Nancy Price, page 10). Organized labor has not even been invited to participate in the talks. So much for transparency, but Bush’s motives are clear enough. — JMC

Editor’s Note: After we went to press, the House voted to change the rules so that it will not have to take up the trade agreement until the speaker calls it up. However, David Sirota suspects that “Democrats' move to delay the Colombia Free Trade Deal is not a move to kill the bill and take a stand for human rights abroad and a just economic policy at home--it is a move to make sure the bill can ultimately pass,” possibly in a lame-duck session after the election. The House voted 224-195 on Thursday, April 9, to put off consideration of the agreement with Colombia, with all but 10 Democrats backing Pelosi while 6 Republicans joined Pelosi in setting aside the agreement. Call your Congress member to make sure they oppose Bush’s bad deal now as well as in December.

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2008

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