Concerns Vindicated on 'Free' Trade Agreements

May 23, 2014


Rallies sponsored by the Citizens Trade Campaign protested Colombia President Alvaro Uribe’s campaign of misinformation about the Colombia Free Trade Agreement.

In 2007, as Congress considered approval of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, the IBEW joined 10 other unions in a letter opposing the pact with the most dangerous country in the world for unions, with 72 trade unionists assassinated the year before.


Approving a trade agreement with a nation where workers are killed for organizing unions or going on strike, the unions said, “Would make a mockery of any U.S. trade policy commitment on worker rights.” Despite the opposition of unions and others, the trade agreement was approved in 2011.

The U.S. government countered union objections saying the agreement would not only boost exports, but improve labor rights by implementing a 37-point Labor Action Plan. The LAP was supposed to give greater rights to unions and cut down on the murder and harassment of union organizers.

Three years later, a May 14 article in the Miami Herald reports that many of the concerns raised by unions about labor rights in Colombia are still unaddressed.

After a visit to Colombia, U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said, “I was shocked at how bad the daily reality for workers and labor activists is on the ground. The Labor Action Plan has completely lost its primary function which was to improve workers’ abilities to exercise their rights.” There were 26 assassinations of union leaders in 2013 and 13 attempts, says the National Union School of Columbia.

The Colombian agreement has resulted in more agricultural exports from the U.S. and fewer Colombian agricultural exports to the U.S. But Colombian farmers are complaining that the U.S. is creating the same kind of unfair playing field that unionists say exists with China in the manufacturing sector.

Thousands of Colombian farmers have gone on strike contending that they cannot compete with U.S. agriculture,which receives $90 billion of subsidies each year from the federal government through crop insurance.

In May, members of several unions, including the IBEW joined the Communication Workers of America in a rally in Washington, D.C. to oppose giving the administration “fast track” authority to implement the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a new trade agreement.

In 2011, the IBEW sent another letter to Congress opposing a proposed trade agreement between the U.S. and South Korea. The letter anticipated the loss of approximately 159,000 U.S. jobs during the first seven years of implementation. The IBEW also criticized the lack of language to stop South Korea from manipulating the price of its currency. The agreement passed Congress in 2012.

As with the Colombian agreement, the union’s concerns have been realized. The U.S. trade deficit with South Korea reached a historic high of $21 billion in 2013, an increase of more than $7 billion from 2011. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that 40,000 U.S. jobs, many in manufacturing, have been lost to South Korea in the first year of the agreement.

The United Steelworkers magazine, USW@Work, reports on efforts by that union and steel companies to stop unfair and illegal trade practices by South Korea, which has replaced China as the top U.S. overseas source for oil and gas pipe. “It is a product that is only produced for export. Those exports are then subsidized and ‘dumped’ into the United States at prices intended to undercut our domestic producers,” says USW President Leo Gerard.