North America's Strongest Union

Colombia Doesn't Deserve Anti-Worker Trade Pact

The Colombian government is putting its prettiest face forward this week in hopes of getting an ugly trade deal with the United States.

The Colombian Embassy is placing 47 giant heart sculptures throughout Washington, D.C. It is also giving away 25,000 Colombian flowers in Union Station and encouraging photo ops with Juan Valdez.

But hearts, flowers and Juan Valdez don't tell the whole truth about Colombia.

Colombia engages in systematic aggression against workers. Union leaders are routinely threatened with death, spied on, harassed, blacklisted, kidnapped, imprisoned, tortured and killed.

Gustavo Gomez is the latest of the thousands of innocent union members to be assassinated in Colombia. Gomez was a Nestle employee working on a lawful petition drive for the Colombian Food Service Workers Union. He opened his front door two weeks ago, and strangers shot him point blank 10 times.

His killers haven't been found -- and they probably won't be. In only 3.3 percent of Colombia's 2,700 union murder cases since 1986 have suspects been tried and convicted. Six in 10 union murders haven't even been investigated.

That isn't an accident. The government of President Alvaro Uribe cultivates a climate of fear to weaken trade unions and political opponents. Time and again, government officials accuse trade unionists of links to terrorism. Those are killing words. Paramilitaries and government security forces routinely murder people tied -- without evidence -- to guerrilla groups.

The state-sponsored violence against union members in Colombia is part of a broader assault on workers. Take the workers who pick the flowers being given out at Union Station. Most are women, many are single moms, and they earn poverty wages -- about $215 a month, not enough to support a family.

Women applying for a flower worker job are often forced to take a pregnancy test. Pregnant flower workers are often fired. Many work only seasonally. Sometimes pesticides are sprayed on them while they're working.

It would be unconscionable for the United States to reward Colombia's violent, anti-worker regime with any kind of trade deal -- let alone a trade deal modeled on the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Like NAFTA, a trade agreement with Colombia would protect the interests of corporate investors while weakening workers' rights. A trade deal with Colombia would destroy family farms in Colombia, the way NAFTA did in Mexico.

NAFTA cost at least 1 million U.S. jobs, many in the auto industry and at least 60,000 of them in Michigan. In Mexico, NAFTA made a few people very rich while sending workers' wages on a downward spiral. In the United States, NAFTA contributed to rising inequality and the disappearance of our manufacturing base.

A trade deal with Colombia would accelerate that trend. And it would excuse Colombia's horrifying treatment of workers. American workers don't need another bad trade deal.


Mr. Hoffa's letter originally appeared in The Detroit News on September 9, 2009.

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