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Labor chief raps trade pact with Colombia

Rift widens between White House, key constituency

- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 16, 2011

A rift between the Obama White House and one of its key political constituencies widened Thursday as AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka stepped up his criticism of the administration's proposed free-trade deal with Colombia.

"Our nation has lost more than 3 million good manufacturing jobs over the past decade," said Mr. Trumka, head of the nation's largest labor federation. "We need to focus on domestic job-creation efforts, not passing another NAFTA-style agreement."

Although the AFL-CIO has voiced opposition previously, its heightened campaign against the pact this week is a setback for the president, who views the agreement as a necessary boost for the economy. The deal has the support of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, who said it will increase U.S. exports and create jobs.

Creating jobs has been Mr. Obama's mantra as he tours the country lately, in the wake of a May report showing the loss of another 5,000 jobs in the manufacturing sector. The unemployment rate rose last month to 9.1 percent.

The president has tried to appease labor by insisting that ratification of free-trade deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea be tied to trade adjustment assistance, which provides aid to workers who lose their jobs or see their wages decline because of increased imports.

But labor organizers held several events in Washington this week aimed at convincing Congress to kill the pact, which has not yet come up for a vote. The AFL-CIO paid for print advertising to criticize the agreement, and hosted trade unionists from Colombia in Washington to tell Congress about the Latin American nation's record of violence against labor organizers.

At a press conference on Capitol Hill on Thursday, Communications Workers of America President Larry Cohen said the agreement's labor action plan to address violence against workers "is more rhetoric than reality." The plan requires Colombia to take steps to enforce labor rights and increase protection of labor activists.

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk announced Monday that Colombia had met an interim deadline for these commitments. "It's time to seize the market-opening, job-supporting opportunities of the pending trade agreements for American businesses, farmers, ranchers and workers," Mr. Kirk said in a statement.

But Mr. Trumka said he's still concerned about worker safety in Colombia.

"While we appreciate the efforts of Presidents Obama and [Colombia's Juan Manuel] Santos to improve the situation by implementing the labor action plan, this plan does not go far enough to protect workers and ensure their safety and security," he said.

James Sherk, senior policy analyst on labor issues at the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation, said the U.S. labor movement is using the issue of violence against Colombian workers as a "pretext."

"The union movement opposes free trade because they do not like international competition," Mr. Sherk said. "They are trying to flex their muscles and defeat the deal for that reason."

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