WASHINGTON -- Defenders of the White House push for sweeping trade deals argue they include tough enforcement of labor standards. But a top union leader scoffed at such claims Tuesday, revealing that administration officials have said privately that they don’t consider even the killings of labor organizers to be violations of those pacts.
Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, testified to that claim at a Senate Finance Committee hearing on legislation to grant President Barack Obama so-called fast-track authority to cut at least two new enormous trade agreements with Pacific Rim nations and the European Union. It appears to be the first time anyone has revealed such a stance on the part of a U.S. government that has been touting its efforts to improve wages and working conditions among its trading partners, relying in part on trade agreements.
But Trumka charged that the labor standards included in those trade deals are poorly enforced, and that before he would back the White House’s push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership or the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, he wanted to see tougher labor provisions that could be enforced.
“When you say, ‘Oh these are some standards, they’re better than no standards,’ we were told by by the [United States Trade Representative] general counsel that murdering a trade unionist doesn’t violate these standards, that perpetuating violence against a trade unionist doesn’t violate these agreements,” Trumka said, directing his remarks to Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who backs the deals.
Trumka pointed specifically to the Colombia trade pact that was signed in 2006, but passed by Congress in 2011. Trumka said that even after the Obama administration crafted an agreement to tighten labor protections four years ago, some 105 labor organizers have been killed, and more than 1,300 have been threatened with death.
“Excuse me. Excuse me if I’m not willing to accept that standard.” Trumka said.
Pressed for details about Trumka’s assertion that murder doesn’t count as a violation of labor rules, Thea Lee, the AFL-CIO deputy chief of staff, told HuffPost that USTR officials said in at least two meetings where she was present that killing and brutalizing organizers would not be considered interfering with labor rights under the terms of the trade measures.
One instance involved talks last year about killings in Guatemala, where the AFL-CIO has been seeking redress for labor violations for six years. Another came just a few months ago in talks about a three-year-old case involving Honduras, Lee said.
“To substantiate our case we documented five or six murders of Guatemalan trade unionists that the government had failed to effectively investigate or prosecute,” Lee said. “The USTR told us that the murders of trade unionists or violence against trade unionists was not a violation of the labor chapter because it was a rule of law problem.
“We certainly made the argument that if a worker is murdered in the course of trying to exercise a legal right to freedom of association or to organize and bargain collectively, then the government is failing to effectively enforce its laws, and the USTR disagreed with that interpretation,” Lee said. “If there is a climate of terror against trade unionists who effectively are prevented from exercising their rights under the law, then our government ought to take this at least as seriously as a failure to send a labor inspector to a factory.”
A spokesman for the USTR, Andrew Bates, didn't explicitly deny Trumka's interpretation. But he noted that in the cases of Honduras and Guatemala, the deals were signed by the Bush administration, as part of the Central American Free Trade Agreement, and included weaker provisions than those that the Obama administration extracted in finishing the Colombia pact.
Bates also noted that the U.S. has been pressing Colombian authorities under the trade agreement to reduce attacks on labor organizers there.
“Addressing violence against union leaders and organizers and prosecuting perpetrators of union-related violence is a critical part of our effort to advance fundamental worker rights,” Bates said. “In Colombia commitments in this regard were a key part of the Labor Action Plan negotiated by the Obama Administration in connection with the Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement.”
Bates pointed to USTR data that shows killings of union organizers dropped from about 100 a year before the pact to about 28 killings a year now.
“There has been a significant decline in violence against union members and labor activists in Colombia over the time that we have been working with Colombia under the Action Plan,” Bates added. “We will continue to work with the Departments of Labor and State to make further progress in this regard.”
Lee said that the agreement the Obama administration added to the Colombia deal is better, in that it requires the country to meet international labor standards, not just comply with its own wage and work laws.
But she said the principle is the same as with earlier agreements
“It doesn’t change the basic point about whether the policy position from USTR is that murdering a trade unionist is not a violation of the labor chapter" in a trade agreement, Lee said. “I think it would be the same for any of those labor chapters.”
Lee is barred by law from talking about specifics of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is nearing completion, but she said it contains only minor improvements on the Colombia deal, leaving union leaders to suspect there would be insufficient enforcement of the labor standards, especially in a country like Vietnam, where the Communist leadership permits only one party-controlled union.
“Our disappointment has been that we weren’t able to really move it forward to the next level, even with a Democratic president,” Lee said. “They are trying, absolutely. There are a lot of well-meaning people in the administration, very sincere, and they’re working hard, but at the end of the day, it hasn’t been effective.”
The Senate Finance Committee is taking up the fast-track legislation Wednesday, and the House Ways and Means Committee is expected to do the same Thursday. Fast track, or Trade Promotion Authority, as it is formally known, allows the administration to sign an agreement, then get it passed by Congress with expedited procedures, no filibusters, and no amendments. If lawmakers don't like parts of a deal, their only choice is to vote yes or no.
Although members of Congress have access to details of the secret deals, none of the pacts in the works now will have been completed by the time Congress is likely to vote on giving the president authority to sign them.
UPDATE: The USTR's Bates followed up with a lengthier statement. “It is absolutely not USTR’s position that free trade agreement labor chapters do not cover labor-related violence," he said in an email. "Addressing violence against union leaders and organizers and prosecuting perpetrators of union-related violence is a critical centerpiece of our efforts to advance fundamental worker rights. In terms of the TPP, the working conditions and status of labor rights in many Asian countries are deplorable, and labor advocates have been subjected to harassment and violence there. The United States can be significantly more effective in elevating workers’ rights in Asia and leveling the playing field for American workers if we engage with these countries. That is why we’re seeking to build on the strong labor provisions in the most recent U.S. trade agreements by seeking enforceable rules that uphold fundamental labor rights. Those opposed to TPP would leave us in the position of doing nothing and effectively locking in the status quo – potentially making it even harder for us to fight for these rights in the future."
AFL-CIO's Lee said she was not satisfied with the response. "I concede that they care. I concede that they are acting to address the labor violence. The question is whether USTR considers murder to be a violation of the labor chapter. That is the question," she said. "The point is that USTR has informed us that labor-related violence does not constitute an actionable violation of the labor provisions in our FTAs. The quote [from Bates] skirts that question."
Bates, asked directly, said that yes, the labor chapter covers violence against organizers. Lee remained unconvinced. "But does USTR consider labor-related violence to be an actionable breach of the labor chapter? Before President Trumka gave his comments at the Guatemala press briefing, Tim Reif and Mike Froman reminded Trumka that violence is not part of the labor chapter," she said.
Lee forwarded an example of the U.S. government declining to engage in the issue of violence in a report on Honduras. "In addition, the Submission alleges that the GOH has failed to investigate and prosecute violence and threats against trade unionists, noting that violence against trade unionists and the failure to fully investigate such violence can have a broad chilling effect on the exercise of workers’ rights. The OTLA does not make findings with respect to the issue of labor violence in this report of review; however, the United States Government (USG) will continue to engage extensively with the GOH on this issue."
Lee continued: "As As to Colombia: we want to know what action the US is taking if it thinks killing trade unionists is actionable, given that 105 have been killed since the Labor Action Plan went into effect."
This story is developing...
Ryan Grim contributed reporting. Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.