AFL-CIO president John Sweeney has an op-ed in today’s Washington Post claiming that concern for the safety of union leaders in Colombia is behind his opposition to the Colombia Free Trade Agreement. We’ll let you decide if Sweeney cares more about member union dues or the supposed safety concerns of people half a world away he’s never met, but the facts on the ground in Colombia belie his claim. As the Wall Street Journal reports today:
The anti-FTA case in the U.S. has been built on two pillars of propaganda. The first is that under Mr. Uribe’s leadership, labor unions have suffered disproportionately as a target of assassins. This is false. Murders of labor activists have been reduced sharply under Mr. Uribe, from 196 the year he took office to 26 last year.
Why were unionists getting murdered at such a high rate prior to Mr. Uribe’s presidency? In part it had to do with the historical ties between some of the dominant public-sector unions and Colombia’s hard left. These organizations have their roots in an anti-American, antidemocratic, antimarket ideology shared with the country’s Castro-backed insurgents. Tragically, this has put the dominant unions on the left side of Colombia’s violent politics for decades. Those who took up weapons to fight guerrilla aggression have been on the other side of the conflict.
The second anti-FTA myth is that Colombia’s largest unions, whose leaders are opposed to trade, are representative of the country’s work force. It’s true that the big unions represent 86% of all organized labor, but total union membership accounts for just 4.5% of the workforce. This is a decline from a decade ago when membership was 6% of the work force.
The cause of this low rate, the visitors to Washington told me, is the radicalized political agenda of the leadership in the large unions. It can be summed up as “down with the government, down with the imperialists, down with the International Monetary Fund.” This rhetoric doesn’t fly with most Colombians. They believe that, beyond the U.S. appetite for traditional Colombian exports – coffee, bananas, coal and oil – there is an opportunity to discover new U.S. markets that benefit workers. In a letter to the AFL-CIO dated March 28, the group also charged that the leaders of the large traditional unions are “more interested in achieving personal privileges than in working on behalf of the workers.”