Labor Wins One, Loses One

On May 4, over the strenuous objections of organized labor, President Obama announced that the U.S. intends to sign an ambitious and expanded free trade agreement with the government of Colombia. AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka described the treaty thusly: “The action plan does not go nearly far enough in laying out concrete benchmarks for progress in the areas of violence and impunity, nor does it address many of the ways in which Colombian labor law falls short of international standards.”

For those not familiar with the international labor scene, Colombia not only leads the western hemisphere in anti-union sentiment, it has a unique and horrifying way of expressing that sentiment. Last year alone, 51 Colombian labor activists were brutally murdered, many of them by what were reported to be government-sponsored death squads. As Trumka wryly pointed out, would this trade agreement be moving forward if 51 CEOs had been killed?

When it comes to workers’ rights, you have your old-fashioned, garden variety “anti-unionism” as seen in places like Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina (with 3.5 percent union membership, it’s the lowest of any state in the U.S.), and then you have your infinitely more toxic, government-sanctioned anti-unionism as seen in places like Guatemala, Honduras, and Colombia.

Ironically, this Colombian trade bill comes on the heels of one of the Obama administration’s most impressive pro-labor decisions—i.e., the NLRB’s astonishing announcement that it was prohibiting the Boeing Corporation from moving a major part of its 787 Dreamliner passenger plane manufacturing operation from Washington state to South Carolina.

The Boeing announcement came as a genuine shocker. After decades of timidly and gingerly pecking away at corporate violations of federal labor and safety statutes—seemingly terrified at the prospect of angering Big Business or rocking the economic boat—the NLRB pouncing on a corporation as well-lubricated and integrated into the military-industrial complex as Boeing is came as… well, a mind-blower.

The NLRB’s decision made eminent legal sense. It was based solely on the fact that Boeing’s move was being done primarily “in retaliation” for its Seattle workers (most of whom are members of the IAM—International Association of Machinists) going out on strike, something that Boeing management tends to frown on.

As it happens, acting in retaliation for a strike is a clear violation of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act). After Boeing more or less declared (in internal memos and public interviews) that it was making the move as a form of payback, the NLRB’s acting general counsel, Lafe Solomon, said he had no choice but to rule against it. You either enforce the law, as written, or you don’t. He did the right thing.

Of course, reaction to the Boeing decision was predictable. Not only did business groups across the country react with hysteria and outrage, but South Carolina’s Republican senators, Jim DeMint and Lindsay Graham, both vowed dramatically to declare war on organized labor (as if this were breaking news… as if they hadn’t been staunch anti-union pilgrims their entire careers).

While it remains to be seen if the Boeing decision sticks—and, given the pro-business posture of the federal appellate courts, many observers predict it won’t—it was nonetheless a wise and gutsy call, not to mention a much needed salvo across the bow of corporate America.

The problem with the Colombian trade deal is that it’s pure window dressing, not worth the paper it’s written on. Organized labor doesn’t believe for one minute that the Colombian government will abide by the language included in that treaty. Despite the glib assurances provided by Colombia’s president Juan Manuel Santos, no one—not Colombian business interests, not American banks and private investors, not the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, not the National Association of Manufacturers—wants to see Colombia’s working class gain power. And if the provisions of that treaty were enforced, they would definitely gain power.

You don’t murder 50 union organizers one year and then, the very next year, sit down and draft a high-minded document that makes it sound as if you’ve been fundamentally pro-labor all along. To believe that could happen, you’d have to be blind, deaf and dumb and a presidential candidate.

But the trade agreement was never in doubt; it was assured of passing. The Republicans staunchly supported it, the Democrats gutlessly went along with them, and Obama was eager, pen in hand, to sign it. The corporations will profit from the agreement, the oligarchies will be made stronger by it, and the only losers will be the Colombian people.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor), was a former union rep. He can be reached at: dmacaray@earthlink.net. Read other articles by David.