WASHINGTON (PAI) – Organized labor welcomed the Obama administration’s first move against rampant labor rights violations in Guatemala – a move called for as part of a process under a so-called “free trade” treaty, CAFTA.

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said on Aug. 9 the U.S. wants to push the Latin American nation to enforce its own labor laws, guaranteeing freedom of association, the right to organize and bargain collectively and “acceptable working conditions.” Previous talks to solve the complaint failed, Kirk said.

“This is the first labor case the United States has ever brought under a trade agreement,” Kirk’s office said of the U.S. decision to demand a 3-person arbitration panel created to probe Guatemala’s violations and recommend solutions.

Steelworkers President Leo Gerard and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka praised Kirk’s move, with Trumka calling it “historic.” And Gerard said it should be followed by similar administration moves against other trade violators.  

But a timeline within CAFTA – showing what steps come next – means there will be no quick resolution. The arbitration panel’s report could be within four months, at a minimum, and it could come after more than six months. Then there is silence on what the U.S. can do if Guatemala refuses to accept the arbitrators’ recommendations.

Nevertheless, Trumka called Kirk’s move “an important milestone in the efforts to enforce the obligations made in trade agreements and protect the rights of workers in the U.S. and overseas.

“Despite expectations laid out in the free trade agreement, Guatemala has a long record of failing to protect workers as required,” Trumka noted. The AFL-CIO first complained to the U.S. Trade Rep’s office about Guatemalan violations three years ago.

“With this case, we are sending a strong message the Obama administration will act firmly to ensure effective enforcement of labor laws by our trading partners,” Kirk said.  He praised “some positive steps” by Guatemala, but declared, “its overall actions and proposals have been insufficient to address apparent systemic failures. We need to see concrete actions to protect rights of workers as agreed…and we are prepared to act to obtain enforcement of those rights when and where necessary.”

“This is more than any other administration has done,” in enforcing trade pacts, AFL-CIO trade specialist Celeste Drake told Press Associates. Nevertheless, the delays built into CAFTA – and into other similar trade treaties – and the lack of an enforceable remedy at the end “shows the weaknesses of the CAFTA text.”

“First, the promise is so low. Then there’s the drag-it-out. The Guatemalans won’t be able to exercise labor rights by Christmas.”  

Gerard made some of those points, too, even as he praised Kirk’s move.

“Workers in Guatemala have lost income, their jobs and in some cases, their lives attempting to exercise basic rights. The provisions in the trade agreement must be enforced on the right of free association by Guatemalan workers to organize and bargain collectively,” he said.

“This labor case by the U.S. under an FTA is a milestone for workers in both countries. The previous administration ignored the systematic violation of these rights, so we applaud Ambassador Kirk in ensuring these rights will be respected.

“The USTR action must be followed by efforts to end the violence against unionists and denial of their rights in Mexico and Colombia – and elsewhere in the world,” the Steelworkers leader pointedly concluded.



Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.