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Heeding Labor's Demand?

By Robert Novak

President Bush next week will send Congress a trade agreement forcing Democrats there to make an unpleasant choice. Will they follow the bidding of organized labor and reject a pact negotiated more than a year and a half ago with the country's strongest ally and best customer in South America?

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi does not want to make her members cast votes on the Colombian Free Trade Agreement. It is unconditionally opposed by the AFL-CIO, which is uninterested in negotiating changes. But to forget about a vote this year as Pelosi wants would be akin to an outright rejection in its international implications. It would humiliate Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, a free-trader and a bulwark against the spreading influence in Latin America of Venezuela's leftist strongman President Hugo Chavez.

The difficulty in getting only about 30 House Democrats to provide the needed margin of victory reflects the Democratic Party's abandonment of free trade over the past half-century. Less obvious, labor's intense opposition shows that the AFL-CIO no longer leads the way against the far left throughout the world, as it did under George Meany and Lane Kirkland in bygone years. Their successors are not concerned with the prospect of Chavez, allied with communist Cuba, dominating the Western Hemisphere.

Colombia has fought a long, successful battle against leftist guerillas supported and financed by Chavez. As a faithful U.S. ally, Uribe has been astounded by the fate of the trade agreement. Since it was signed in November 2006, not one congressional hearing has been held. To please Democrats, U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab has gone back to Bogota and won changes on labor and environmental issues. Even now, she is willing to add trade adjustment subsidies for displaced workers in quest of a bipartisan deal. But nothing budges labor.

Schwab's pleas to Democrats are about bread and butter. The agreement removes a $200,000 tariff on Caterpillar off-road tractors going into Colombia, producing thousands of jobs for Americans. Under the Andean Trade Preference Act recently extended by Congress, Colombia has nearly total duty-free access into the United States, but the AFL-CIO insists it cannot approve the agreement because of the way Colombian unions are persecuted.

A rare insight into what the Uribe regime really thinks is going on was provided me by Vice President Francisco Santos on one of the many trips to Washington by senior Colombian officials to court congressional support. Santos told me Chavez's controlled labor unions in Venezuela are in close touch with Colombia's leftist unions, who in turn influence the AFL-CIO. Thus, the labor intransigence in Washington can be traced to Caracas.

An AFL-CIO delegation to Colombia in mid-February headed by Linda Chavez-Thompson met with Uribe, who promised to deal with alleged violence against Colombian labor leaders. But the Americans spent most of their time with their Colombian compatriots, who recited horror stories of persecution. After the visit, the AFL-CIO Executive Council announced on March 4, "Should it come up for a vote this year, we will mobilize the unions and the resources of the federation to defeat it."

Rep. Sander Levin, a longtime labor stalwart from Michigan who has become the vicar of protectionism as chairman of the House Subcommittee on Trade, has called Bush's decision to send the trade agreement to Congress "a step backward." That implies a step away from a bipartisan accord, but what the Democratic leadership wants is no action at all.

This attitude cannot be removed from the contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton over who hates most the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). At a Johnstown, Pa., town meeting last weekend, a questioner blamed NAFTA for local jobs outsourced to India. Obama had to politely remind the questioner that the treaty concerned Mexico and Canada, not India, before getting in his licks against NAFTA.

There are enough Democratic politicians embarrassed by protectionist sloganeering that they would be inclined to support the Colombian agreement -- were it not for labor's intervention. How many Democrats in Congress will qualify for a profile in courage by not heeding the AFL-CIO's dictates on the Colombian Free Trade Agreement?


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See Other Commentaries by Robert D. Novak

Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.

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