WASHINGTON -- On August 4, Senate leaders announced a "breakthrough" in negotiations over three trade deals currently pending before Congress that now appear likely to clear the upper chamber. But union leaders and an unusual bipartisan coalition in the House remain opposed to the pacts, with resistance centered on the continued, rampant violence against union workers in Colombia.
As HuffPost's Dave Jamieson reported in July, union members in Colombia are routinely murdered with impunity. Over the past 25 years, nearly 3,000 workers have been killed in the country, with convictions resulting in just six percent of all cases.
That violence has continued, and even escalated, since President George W. Bush first negotiated the trade deal with Colombia in 2007. That year, 37 union workers were killed. The next year, 52, followed by 49 in 2009 and 51 last year.
As a result, unions in the U.S. are strongly opposing the trade deal with Colombia, a move led by the AFL-CIO, the country's largest federation of organized labor groups. The AFL-CIO has said it does not want to see the U.S. condoning violence against workers, nor does it want American workers to have to compete with wages that are depressed using the credible threat of murder.
President Barack Obama has tried to address these concerns, negotiating an "action plan" on violence against workers that was announced in April. The action plan isn't formally part of the trade agreement, and it doesn't require the Colombian government to actually curb violence against union workers -- it simply requires the government to create institutions designed to combat the violence. If those institutions are ineffective, the Colombian government faces no consequences. And there are few signs that the action plan is making a difference -- in fact, since it was signed, 10 more union workers have been killed in Colombia.
The day Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ken.) announced their agreement on the trade issues, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka penned a letter to all members of Congress reiterating union opposition to the Colombia deal and highlighting continued violence. Whatever formal worker protections are outlined in the trade deal, Trumka said, the Colombian government simply does not have the resources or the capacity to enforce them amid widespread assassinations.
The Senate "breakthrough" does not involve any actual changes to any of the trade agreements under consideration -- it's a procedural maneuver designed to shore up votes. Both Republicans and Democrats support passing the trade deals in the Senate, but Republicans in both chambers have balked at the prospect of continuing to provide Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) to workers whose jobs are sent abroad by the trade pacts. In late July, a dozen Senate Republicans announced that they would not filibuster a vote on TAA, amid heavy pressure from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- a lobbying front-group for some of the most powerful American corporations -- and a coalition of CEOs known as the Business Roundtable.
Reid and McConnell agreed to hold separate votes on TAA and the trade deals, preventing opponents of TAA from teaming up with opponents of the trade pacts and shooting down the entire package. With the threat of a filibuster removed, both TAA and the trade agreements are likely to pass through independent votes.
Similar procedural gambits have less traction in the House, where labor-allied Democrats and some Tea Party conservatives still oppose the trade agreements, and still more Tea Party members staunchly oppose TAA. But even if both chambers do agree to extend TAA to laid-off workers as part of the trade deals, Congress would still have to pass a separate appropriations bill to ensure that the money actually makes it out the door. And in a political environment dominated by harsh spending cuts, Democrats view that prospect as extremely unlikely.
"The TAA, even if it gets authorized, isn't going to get appropriated," Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) told HuffPost. "Have you ever met a Republican freshman in favor of appropriating TAA?"
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also pushed back against the trade agreements in an interview last week with MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell.
"The White House may support it, but the Congress may have a different view," Pelosi said, adding that it's "debatable" whether the trade deals will create U.S. jobs.
Based on official estimates from the U.S. International Trade Commission, economist Robert Scott of the Economic Policy Institute expects the Colombia and South Korea trade pacts to send about 200,000 U.S. jobs abroad.
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