Steelworkers warn Congress: Don’t back trade that hurts workers

PITTSBURGH – The Steelworkers have laid out, again, a detailed case against all three pending “free trade” agreements – with Colombia, Panama and South Korea – circulating on Capitol Hill.  But it’s literally the last line of union President Leo Gerard’s 5-page single-spaced letter that may really wake lawmakers up.

That’s because he says voters will remember next November which politicians favored workers and which ones didn’t on the trade pacts – a warning to both parties.

“The American people, in increasing numbers, reject the approach our policymakers have taken on the trade issue. They will remember, at the next election, those who stood by their side and those who put their jobs, their families and their communities at risk,” Gerard’s detailed June 20 letter concludes.

Gerard wrote Congress as debate heated up over the pacts, and especially over those with South Korea and Colombia. Business launched an expensive blitz for the pacts.  The GOP-run House Ways and Means Committee started work on legislation to implement them, but Congress can do nothing officially until the Obama administration sends such legislation to Capitol Hill – which must vote it up or down, with no changes.

The Steelworkers leader argues all three treaties are built on the flawed model of the U.S.-Canada-Mexico North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).  As labor forecast in arguing against it, NAFTA has cost at least 683,000 well-paying U.S. industrial jobs, calculations show. Gerard urged Congress to beat all three new pacts.

“Overwhelming portions of our members work in import-sensitive manufacturing sectors, and all too often lost jobs due to bad trade deals and unfair and predatory trade practices.  Promises made by administrations past and present touting the benefits of free trade have simply not materialized for America’s manufacturing workers,” he said.

“The results of ‘free trade’ deals are all too clear: In the last decade alone, six million manufacturing jobs and 55,000 plants have been lost.  Multinational companies easily set up operations overseas and export back to the U.S….New Department of Commerce data show large U.S. multinational companies cut their workforces in the U.S. by 2.9 million during the 2000s while increasing employment overseas by 2.4 million. This continues even as workers wrestle with a tepid and uncertain recovery.”

Trade policies that “encourage job growth overseas” lead to unemployment and under-employment here, Gerard warned lawmakers. Citing the Economic Policy Institute’s calculations, for example, he said the U.S.-Korea FTA pact alone could cost another 159,000 high-paying jobs and increase the U.S. trade deficit in seven sectors.

“The Korea-U.S. FTA will accelerate the off-shoring and outsourcing of auto parts production, jeopardizing not only the jobs of 350,000 Steelworkers that make products that can be used in the auto supply chain, but those of other workers across the country,” Gerard said.  Obama did well to keep U.S. tariffs on Korean vehicles for up to eight years, he conceded, but “came up short for the vastly larger auto supply chain.”

Labor is split, however, on the U.S.-Korea deal. The United Auto Workers and the United Food and Commercial Workers favor it and other unions – plus the AFL-CIO and Korean organized labor – oppose it.

UFCW says the U.S.-Korea deal will open up the Korean market to processed U.S. meat and poultry, whose plants employ many of its members. UAW negotiated with the Obama administration to keep the tariffs on the Korean vehicles.

Gerard said the pact would endanger the auto supply chain workers’ jobs. They would face cheap Korean imports, aided by Korea’s currency manipulation. The pact does nothing to curb that manipulation or multinationals’ actions, he said. And the pact lets Korea export vehicles to the U.S. that are only 35 percent Korean-made, making Korea a transshipment center for even-cheaper Chinese cars – and costing more U.S. jobs.

Organized labor is unanimously dead set against the Colombia FTA, for the reasons Gerard laid out in his letter: The Latin American nation is the world leader in political assassinations of unionists and has been for more than a decade.

And a recent agreement on labor rights enforcement between Colombia’s new president and Democratic President Barack Obama is only just that – an agreement – that hasn’t gone into effect yet and that isn’t part of the U.S.-Colombia FTA, he adds.

The pact is “sacrificing the lives and livelihoods, the worker and human rights of the Colombian people at the altar of free trade,” he declared.  It “institutionalizes a status quo that makes Colombia the most dangerous place in the world to be a union member.” The death toll is approaching 2,600.

Colombia “continues to fail miserably at effectively prosecuting those responsible for anti-union violence. Impunity for anti-union killings remains at 96 percent, while impunity for other forms of anti-union violence remains at an incredible 99.8 percent,” Gerard wrote. “Colombia should not be rewarded with a trade agreement until it has a proven track record of bringing to justice” the perpetrators and enforcing workers’ rights nationwide.

In a separate letter, The Washington Office on Latin America also enlisted 431 groups against the U.S.-Colombia FTA. They included IBEW Local 1837, fair trade coalitions in Minnesota and Oregon, the United Electrical Workers, USW Local 1188 and the union’s Maine state council, Teamsters Local 340 and UFCW Local 1689.

Photo: messay Shoakena // CC 2.0


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.