Sunday, December 14, 2008

KILLING LABOR: The Columbia Free Trade Pact & Beyond

By Jack Random

In the last presidential debate, with his life’s ambition slipping away and with it the dream of free market fundamentalism, John McCain boldly asserted that the Columbia Free Trade pact was a “no brainer.”

He was right.

In Columbia they kill labor leaders. In the first eight months of 2008 alone they killed 41 labor union members (more than in all of 2007). Free Trade advocates, including the corporate media giants, argue that Columbia’s record on labor and human rights has improved. Their reasoning: They kill fewer labor leaders than they used to kill.

Let’s think about that. If you killed a dozen labor leaders in the US – a larger and more populous nation with at least some established labor tradition – it would take at least a decade to replace them. In other words, you don’t have to behead the snake twice. Once is enough.

In Guatemala the killing of labor increased decisively after the passage of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). So it seems signing a free trade agreement with the US is equivalent to a free pass for human rights and labor abuse.

We should not be surprised. For while we are world’s loudest advocate of human rights, we have long been labor’s most powerful enemy. It does not stand to reason that any functioning democracy should be anti-labor but we are just that. The anti-labor propaganda campaign has been so persistent, permeating all levels of mainstream media, that it has turned the world on its head, convincing a majority of working people that labor is actually against their interests – or conversely, that corporations have the interests of workers at heart.

Even now, when it is resoundingly clear that the dominant international corporations are unfeeling monsters that would march us all off a cliff for a short term profit, the media are holding out for a continuing Free Trade mandate and the continued evisceration of labor.

If the new congress even considers the Columbia Free Trade Agreement, it will signal that they have failed to comprehend the nature and depth of the current global economic crisis.

As Congressman Barney Frank commented, people are not buying cars because they have no money. They have no money because the only jobs that are available must compete with the labor forces of other nations where organized labor does not exist. Now, having sacrificed benefits and decent wages, they are losing jobs because a consumer-based economy cannot be sustained in a society that pays substandard wages to its working people.

It is a vicious cycle that can only be broken by rebuilding the economy from the ground up – that means labor.

Fair trade is not only the alternative it is the only alternative. It is not sufficient to have the language of labor rights in trade agreements if there is no means of enforcement. Further, the practice of approving trade agreements now and expecting improvement in labor practices and human rights later is laughable. Once approved, it requires a level of outrage rarely sounded in the corporate media even to review no less repeal such agreements.

We are in a bold new world and if the Obama administration does not wake up to the realities of this world, he will at best soften the blow by offering compromise measures such as tax incentives to keep jobs home. Worst-case scenario: He adopts wholeheartedly the Free Trade policies of the Clinton administration.

The Columbia agreement is of course intertwined with other interests that have their roots in the wars of the past. The drug war is another we can no longer afford. Like the war on terror it was always an oxymoron. To the extent that illegal drugs are the enemy, we can no more fight a war against drugs than we can wage war against terror. Both are multibillion-dollar boondoggles employed by politicians to secure and influence power. In the Cold War era we routinely supported rightwing military dictatorships under the guise of fighting drugs. Now we use the war on terror to affect the same end.

If Obama is serious about breaking with the past, he would do well to reject the trade agreement with Columbia. He would do well to cut off support for ruthless leaders like Columbia’s Alvaro Uribe Velez. He would do well to adopt a new Latin America policy that acknowledges the failures of Free Trade. For while they have enabled international corporations to rape the land and steal the natural resources of underdeveloped nations, they have done nothing to improve standards of living for the people of those nations.

It is a system built on corporate exploitation and corruption. It has enriched the privileged few who use positions of power to skim money off the top but it has done nothing to lift the people out of poverty or to build sustainable economies.

The people of Columbia and throughout Latin America have experienced firsthand the failures of Free Trade. That is why they have turned to more progressive leaders – even avowed socialists and Marxists. If America continues to turn its back on these realities, insisting on a pledge of allegiance to the failed policies of Free Market fundamentalism, we will continue to lose ground throughout the hemisphere.

There is no inherent reason why we cannot be friends and allies with the democratically elected governments of Bolivia and Venezuela. There is in fact nothing anti-democratic about socialist economic theory and democracy, not capitalism, is the heart of the American ideal. Indeed, there is not a democracy in the world that does not incorporate elements of both socialism and free enterprise; it is a question of balance.

What history strives to teach us is that economies are evolving systems that must constantly adapt to the parameters of an evolving world. In a globalized world any economic system that is constrained by ideology, that fails to balance individual initiative and the common good, that rejects needed reforms on ideological grounds, is bound to fail.

We have inherited a world badly out of balance. The experiment of corporate dominance has reached an end. We are charged with restoring balance. That requires not only a government that will counter the excesses of corporate greed with diligent regulation; it requires rebuilding labor both domestically and internationally to achieve an equitable balance of economic power.

It will not be easy overcoming the irrational prejudice acquired across generations but that is the challenge we face. If we fail to achieve economic stability we will soon be overwhelmed even greater challenges: global climate change and nuclear genocide.

Rejecting the Columbia Free Trade Agreement is only a modest first step but it is, as John McCain suggested, a “no brainer.”