When the Colombia Free Trade Agreement vote comes up in the House this Wednesday, I will ask my colleagues not to look to Columbia first when deciding to vote yes or no. I believe there are other places in the world, some far away, and some close to home, to consider before we make our vote.
This summer the world has been rocked by protests. All across the Arab world, from Tunis to Damascus, oppressed people have demanded that their voices be heard. They have stood up for basic freedoms and made demands that they live under a government that respects their rights and liberties.
And closer to home, Americans have protested too. In Chicago this week, protesters marched down LaSalle Street demanding change and reform that respects the needs of people out of work, people losing their homes, retirees losing their savings, college students who can't afford their tuition and loans. Similar protests in New York continue.
All across America, from Wisconsin to Ohio to Puerto Rico, labor union members and the friends and families who support them, have marched against wholesale elimination of union jobs and unilateral dismantling of longstanding protections for working people.
People are angry and demanding action. And often in the House of Representatives, we respond to these protests with applause and congratulations and support, but what about our votes? We stand up and cheer pro-democracy protesters in the Middle East. In the House, my Democratic friends applaud pro-union protests in Wisconsin and the Occupy Wall Street actions and my Republican friends applaud tea party protests. We are quick to act as if we are on the side of popular movements.
I would like to suggest that we can show whether we really stand with people who are demanding change, and fairness, and justice.
Because for all of the rhetoric about supporting working people, this week we will cast an actual vote that goes right to the heart of whether or not we support working men and women. In fact, we will cast a vote about whether we will protect the very lives of working men and women.
I'm voting no on the Colombia Free Trade Agreement and I urge my colleagues to vote no on the Colombia Free Trade Agreement. Everyone in the House who has ever celebrated, applauded or supported a popular, pro-democracy movement in the U.S. or abroad should think long and hard before they vote yes.
I believe the facts are simple. Voting for the Colombia Free Trade Agreement is a vote for violent union-busting, for driving people from their land, and setting the American working man and woman up to compete on an uneven playing field that will cost jobs and livelihoods.
Nowhere in the world is it more dangerous to be a union organizer fighting for the wages and rights of working people than in Colombia. Twenty-three trade unionists killed this year, 51 last year, and over the past several years, hundreds more threatened, driven out by violence, or simply disappeared. In 2010, more trade unionists were murdered in Colombia than in the rest of the world combined.
In Colombia, there is an organized, intensive campaign to prevent working men and women from joining together to fight for better wages and working conditions and it seems to be working. So why would the United States want to endorse this behavior and reward the companies, working with the government, who have unleashed this violent assault on workers' rights?
Senator Barack Obama understood this when he said,
"The history in Colombia right now is that labor leaders have been targeted for assassination on a fairly consistent basis and there have not been prosecutions... We have to stand for human rights and we have to make sure that violence isn't being perpetrated against workers who are just trying to organize for their rights."
There is no evidence that anything has changed significantly since he said those words in October 2008. If anything, things are worse.
The facts are simple: in Colombia, trade union activists are targeted for assassination. That's not an easy fact to accept, but it's a fact. Approving the free trade pact with Colombia says that the United States can live with this fact. It brings the blood of union activist victims from Bogota to Washington. That blood won't easily be washed away.
A vote for the Colombia free trade agreement is not just a vote about economic policy or imports and exports - it's a vote about whether we will ever learn from our mistakes and negotiate tough and real trade agreements that protect American workers, foreign workers, our environment, and our future.
We were promised that NAFTA would solve US-Mexico trade issues in the 1990s. Instead we have experienced almost two decades of buyer's remorse. We have seen the upheaval in Mexico as U.S. food commodities from subsidized corporate farms flooded rural markets and drove people to Mexican and U.S. cities. Factories left the U.S., environmental and food safety standards dropped, and then, eventually, the same corporations that lobbied for NAFTA took their jobs and manufacturing to Asia and even lower rungs on the working man's race to the bottom.
We keep repeating the same fundamental mistake. Free trade agreements conceived by, written by, and lobbied for by the corporations that benefit from them don't just undermine working people in both countries by accident. This all fits a series of calculations about how to engineer lower wages, fewer environmental rules, speedier off-shoring, and higher profits until another developing country comes along offering even more for less.
We keep racing to the bottom even though the bottom keeps getting deeper.
Every Member of Congress who has ever said he or she stands with American working people and the working people of our allies and neighbors faces a stark choice on Colombia FTA. It's time for us to make a vote that matches our rhetoric. You cannot stand with union members in Wisconsin or get cozy with the Occupy Wall Street protestors or applaud Tea Party rallies and then vote for the Colombia FTA. You cannot have it both ways.
Some might think that nobody cares about this trade agreement. That nobody is paying attention. But people who've risked their lives are paying attention. Union members who face intimidation and assassination; workers without labor rights; small farmers forced off their land; American workers pushed out of work - they are all paying attention. Let's actually stand with people for fairness and justice. Vote no on Colombia FTA.
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