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Publication: Conservative Review
Heeding Labors Demand

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                   April 4, 2008

Heeding Labor's Demand?
By Robert D. Novak

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- President Bush next week will send 
Congress a trade agreement forcing Democrats there to make 
an unpleasant choice. Will they follow the bidding of 
organized labor and reject a pact negotiated more than a 
year and a half ago with the country's strongest ally and 
best customer in South America?

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi does not want to make her 
members cast votes on the Colombian Free Trade Agreement. 
It is unconditionally opposed by the AFL-CIO, which is 
uninterested in negotiating changes. But to forget about 
a vote this year as Pelosi wants would be akin to an out-
right rejection in its international implications. It 
would humiliate Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, a free-
trader and a bulwark against the spreading influence in 
Latin America of Venezuela's leftist strongman President 
Hugo Chavez. 

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The difficulty in getting only about 30 House Democrats to 
provide the needed margin of victory reflects the Demo-
cratic Party's abandonment of free trade over the past 
half-century. Less obvious, labor's intense opposition 
shows that the AFL-CIO no longer leads the way against the 
far left throughout the world, as it did under George 
Meany and Lane Kirkland in bygone years. Their successors 
are not concerned with the prospect of Chavez, allied with 
communist Cuba, dominating the Western Hemisphere.

Colombia has fought a long, successful battle against 
leftist guerillas supported and financed by Chavez. As a 
faithful U.S. ally, Uribe has been astounded by the fate 
of the trade agreement. Since it was signed in November 
2006, not one congressional hearing has been held. To 
please Democrats, U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab 
has gone back to Bogota and won changes on labor and en-
vironmental issues. Even now, she is willing to add trade 
adjustment subsidies for displaced workers in quest of a 
bipartisan deal. But nothing budges labor. 

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Schwab's pleas to Democrats are about bread and butter. 
The agreement removes a $200,000 tariff on Caterpillar 
off-road tractors going into Colombia, producing thousands 
of jobs for Americans. Under the Andean Trade Preference 
Act recently extended by Congress, Colombia has nearly 
total duty-free access into the United States, but the 
AFL-CIO insists it cannot approve the agreement because 
of the way Colombian unions are persecuted.

A rare insight into what the Uribe regime really thinks 
is going on was provided me by Vice President Francisco 
Santos on one of the many trips to Washington by senior 
Colombian officials to court congressional support. Santos 
told me Chavez's controlled labor unions in Venezuela are 
in close touch with Colombia's leftist unions, who in turn 
influence the AFL-CIO. Thus, the labor intransigence in 
Washington can be traced to Caracas.

An AFL-CIO delegation to Colombia in mid-February headed 
by Linda Chavez-Thompson met with Uribe, who promised to 
deal with alleged violence against Colombian labor leaders. 
But the Americans spent most of their time with their 
Colombian compatriots, who recited horror stories of 
persecution. After the visit, the AFL-CIO Executive Council 
announced on March 4, "Should it come up for a vote this 
year, we will mobilize the unions and the resources of the 
federation to defeat it." 

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Rep. Sander Levin, a longtime labor stalwart from Michigan 
who has become the vicar of protectionism as chairman of 
the House Subcommittee on Trade, has called Bush's decision 
to send the trade agreement to Congress "a step backward." 
That implies a step away from a bipartisan accord, but what
the Democratic leadership wants is no action at all.

This attitude cannot be removed from the contest between 
Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton over who hates most the 
North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). At a Johnstown, 
Pa., town meeting last weekend, a questioner blamed NAFTA 
for local jobs outsourced to India. Obama had to politely 
remind the questioner that the treaty concerned Mexico and 
Canada, not India, before getting in his licks against 

There are enough Democratic politicians embarrassed by 
protectionist sloganeering that they would be inclined to 
support the Colombian agreement -- were it not for labor's 
intervention. How many Democrats in Congress will qualify 
for a profile in courage by not heeding the AFL-CIO's 
dictates on the Colombian Free Trade Agreement? 

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