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Colombia: AFL-CIO’s Stuck in the Past

The AFL-CIO is using old arguments – and images – in its campaign against the Colombia FTA.


Last week the
AFL-CIO launched a campaign “to try and stop the pending trade deal between the United States and Colombia,” The Hill reported.

It turns out that the AFL-CIO isn’t just using out-of-date statistics in this campaign — even the photograph in their ad published last Wednesday is more than 13 years old. The ad, which appeared in two Capitol Hill publications, showed a grim funeral procession and the words “Colombia FTA NO.”

My colleague Reuben Smith-Vaughan contacted the photographer, Marcelo Salinas, who is based in San Francisco, California. Mr. Salinas replied that the photo chosen from his archive by the AFL-CIO shows the funeral of union activist and lawyer Eduardo Umana Mendoza on April 20, 1998.

The AFL-CIO charges: “Colombia remains the deadliest country in the world for trade unionists struggling for economic freedom and the fundamental human right to organize.”


The AFL-CIO is claiming to speak for Colombian workers, but Colombian workers and labor institutions have a different perspective. As a matter of fact, violent crime in Colombia has been reduced dramatically over the past decade, particularly among labor union members.


Today, homicide rates are higher in the United States (5.0 per 100,000) than among Colombia’s labor union members (3.4 per 100,000). A resident of the District of Columbia is seven times more likely to be murdered than a Colombian labor union member. The allegation that labor union members are being targeted for assassination today comes from U.S. labor unions, not Colombians.

Far from being persecuted, Colombia’s labor unions have grown significantly in recent years. The number of Colombian workers affiliated with labor unions rose from 850,000 in 2002 to 1,500,000 in 2009 — an increase of more than 75 percent.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) agrees that Colombia has made huge progress, and it dropped Colombia from its list of countries subject to labor rights monitoring in June 2010.

Under the Action Plan agreed by President Obama and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, additional reforms are under way to bolster worker rights and prosecute offenders in cases dating back to the violence of the 1990s.

The Action Plan has won the endorsement of major Colombian labor unions, including the General Labor Confederation and the Union of Workers of the Apparel and Textile Industries of Colombia. The latter union has also endorsed the U.S.-Colombia trade agreement itself.

Colombia’s National Labor School, the country’s leading union-affiliated labor rights monitoring body, has also endorsed the Action Plan, calling it “the most important agenda for the labor movement.” The Action Plan wouldn’t exist without the trade agreement.

Ironically, the AFL-CIO often cites Colombia’s National Labor School as a source of information — but clearly there is a great gulf between the two in their perspective on the Colombia of today.


The AFL-CIO often asserts that trade agreements such as the one between the United States and Colombia will add to the U.S. trade deficit. Is there validity in this charge?

The U.S. market today is already wide open to goods from Korea, Colombia, and Panama, but those countries impose tariffs that often soar into the double digits on U.S. manufactured goods and agricultural products.

U.S. companies have paid more than $17 billion in tariffs to Korea, Colombia, and Panama since the FTAs were signed four years ago — that’s $17 billion in taxes that in most cases would never have been levied if the FTAs hadn’t been gathering dust all these years.

The status quo is tilted against the American worker and his products, particularly in Colombia. Colombia collects $100 in tariffs on U.S. products for every $1 the United States collects in tariffs on Colombian goods.

The trade agreement will fix this imbalance and create a level playing field for American workers and farmers. It’s easy to see how this will create jobs — how could it lead to their loss?

John Murphy is vice president of international affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.



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