US and Colombian unions fight Free Trade deal

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ON Sunday, April 15, the Office of the United States Trade Representative announced that on May 15, 2012, American competitiveness would increase when the United States and Columbia Trade Agreement goes into effect.

However, once the key elements of the agreement Labour Action Plan and the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) were announced, the American Unions of AFL-CIO and President Richard Trumka along with the leaders of national labour organisations in Colombia publicly stated they are against it.

In April 2011, the US and Colombia agreed to an Action Plan on Labour Rights intended to ‘protect internationally recognised labour rights, prevent violence against labour leaders, and prosecute the perpetrators of such violence’ in Colombia.

Although the Action Plan includes some measures that Colombian unions and the AFL-CIO have been demanding for years, its scope was too limited: it resolved neither the grave violations of union freedoms or human rights.

Once the trade agreement goes into effect, over 80% of US exports to Columbia (consumer and industrial products) will immediately become duty free. The remaining tariffs will be phased out within ten years, reducing duties on the US exports entering into South America and eliminating pretty much all of the duties that Columbia imposed on US agricultural and manufactured goods.

Even though there is strong opposition by US allies within the US labour movement against President Obama’s decision, the US business community feels it is a victory.

Allegedly Columbian authorities will now be able to improve protections for workers and union leaders because of the final obstacle for implementation of a free trade agreement.

The agreement will also increase commercial opportunities with Colombia’s fast-growing economy. The pact eliminates duties on most exports, eases travel restrictions and strengthens intellectual property rights.

Strongly against it, the AFL-CIO states that the US and Colombian union leaders feel that rather than moving to implement the FTA, leaders in both countries should move toward a new trade model that creates jobs, boosts economic development and increases standards of living in both countries.

‘Instead, we should add provisions to ensure stronger worker protections, a healthy environment, safe food and products, and the ability to regulate financial and other markets to avoid crises like that of 2008.’

The USW strongly disagrees with the US pronouncement that Colombia has complied with the Labour Action Plan – a move which will allow for implementation of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) starting next month.

The USW, the AFL-CIO and the Colombia labour movement firmly believes the US pronouncement is premature as unionists continue to be killed in Colombia – at a rate of 30 slain in 2011, and six already this year. According to records made public, impunity for prosecution of such killings remains high at around 95 per cent.

Leo W. Gerard, USW International President, said, ‘In the light of such violence and impunity, Colombia continues its shameful distinction as the most dangerous country in the world to be a trade unionist.’

He confirmed support of a joint declaration issued today by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka with leaders of the national Colombian labour unions CUT and the CTC that was critical of the FTA implementation.

He adds: ‘It remains the position of the USW that the withholding of FTA implementation until the rates of anti-union violence and impunity are dramatically reduced is the surest form of leverage the US has to safeguard the lives and well-being of unionists in Colombia.

‘We implore the US government to refrain from giving up this leverage and to indefinitely postpone the implementation of the FTA. This is the only way to ensure Colombia’s future good conduct, and to properly honour the almost 3,000 unionists killed in Colombia since 1986.’

In a statement published earlier this week on the slaying of a Florida teenager named Trayvon Martin, Gerard said, ‘Americans don’t countenance murder, particularly when racially or politically motivated. Americans are justice-seeking and fair-play believing.

‘And that is why we as a country cannot certify that Colombia has fulfilled its obligations under the Labour Action Plan.’

Certification under the plan was seen as a necessary step before the FTA was implemented.

He declared, ‘The USW is committed to working in solidarity with Colombian unions to help bring about this improvement, to defend the very lives of Colombian workers and to fight the implementation of the FTA until they are safe from threats, violence and murder.’

Meanwhile, American Airlines is declaring bankruptcy even as it’s swaddled in cash. Critics contend that it’s a scam to escape union contracts.

With $4 billion in cash, American Airlines’ parent company AMR Corp still declared bankruptcy in November after concluding that the billions of dollars in concessions from its unions since 2003 — plus profits from tax breaks and subsidies — wasn’t enough.

Wanting labour costs down 20 percent, American chose to file for bankruptcy in order to break its union contract and lay off 13,000 workers — 16 percent of the workforce.

Some 130,000 current and former workers risk losing pensions and retiree health care as management seeks to offload $9 billion in unfunded pension obligations to a federal insurance programme.

American hired Mitt Romney’s old consultancy, Bain & Co., to ‘assist in labour-cost assessment and negotiation’ at a cost of $525,000 a month.

‘Taking a long-term view, the American Airlines bankruptcy is a very positive thing,’ a Boeing executive told Reuters. The aircraft maker expects billions of dollars in plane orders from American Airlines once its court-ordered restructuring is complete.

Laura Glading, the president of the Association for Professional Flight Attendants, denounced what she called management’s ‘take-it-or-leave-it tactics, which never result in real success but only resentment and turmoil.’

The company is negotiating with the union, but if an agreement is not reached, it plans to ask the judge to dismiss the current collective-bargaining agreements. If granted, the company can unilaterally impose its own work rules.