March 17, 2006

US labor seeks to stop Oman, Colombia, Peru pacts

By Doug Palmer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. labor groups, which have been
unable to block any free-trade agreement since President George
W. Bush took office five years ago, still hope to defeat pacts
this year with Oman, Peru and Colombia.

"We think we have a real shot at it," said Thea Lee, policy
director for the AFL-CIO said on Friday. "We are planning a
major battle."

A lot of things have changed since 2005, when the House of
Representatives narrowly approved the U.S.-Central America Free
Trade Agreement, or CAFTA, after a bitter and divisive battle
mostly along party lines, Lee said.

The recent controversy over a state-owned Arab company that
purchased the rights to manage major U.S. ports showed
Republicans were more willing to defy Bush before this year's
congressional elections.

Many Democrats also are disappointed U.S. trade officials
did not incorporate core international labor standards into the
text of the agreements after Peruvian President Alejandro
Toledo publicly stated he would be willing to do that.

"I think President Toledo's comments really resonates with
Democrats. It brings home that (U.S. Trade Representative) Rob
Portman said he was going to take a new approach after CAFTA,
he was going to reach out to Democrats, and we haven't really
seen any evidence of that," Lee said.

In a letter sent this week to every member of Congress, the
AFL-CIO provided what it called "troubling examples" of the
conditions workers face in the three countries.

"In Colombia, 200 unionists were killed in 2004, making it
the most dangerous country in the world for workers seeking to
exercise their freedom to form unions," the group said.

U.S. trade officials say provisions of the three agreements
that require countries to enforce their existing labor laws are
consistent with the guidelines that Congress set in 2002.

They argue increased prosperity as a result of the trade
agreements will also give the countries more resources to
improve conditions for workers.

Rep. Gregory Meeks, a New Yorker who was one of only 15
Democrats who voted for CAFTA last year, said on Thursday he
expected tough fights to win approval of the Peru and the
Colombia agreements, although less so for Oman.