Unions Oppose South American Free Trade Efforts

By Nathan Burchfiel | July 7, 2008 | 8:23pm EDT

(CNSNews.com) - North American, South American and international labor unions on Friday spoke out against a free trade agreement between the United States and Peru and urged the U.S. Congress to block legislation approving the agreement first signed last year.

The deal was signed by trade representatives from both countries in April 2006. The Peruvian government ratified the treaty in June 2006, but the U.S. Congress has yet to approve it. The Senate Finance Committee held a hearing on the agreement Tuesday.

"The majority of Americans oppose more NAFTA-style trade deals based on their experience, so it's not surprising that unions and consumer, environmental, faith and Latino groups oppose a Peru NAFTA expansion," Lori Wallach, director of the Global Trade Watch division of Public Citizen, said in a statement.

The liberal-leaning Public Citizen, created by Ralph Nader, is a national non-profit consumer advocacy organization.

"What's surprising," Wallach said, "is that a Democratic-majority Congress would consider more Bush NAFTA-style pacts, especially since the Democrats' majority was delivered by candidates who explicitly ran against incumbents' votes on past NAFTA-style deals."

She was referring to liberal opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement, a trade treaty among the United States, Canada and Mexico created in 1994 during the Clinton administration.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said at a Sept. 11 hearing on the agreement that, if passed, it would mark "the first time any free trade agreement ... requires the parties to implement the five core International Labor Organization (ILO) standards."

"These standards will ensure that Peruvian workers have the right to organize," he said. "These standards will ensure that Peruvian workers have the right to bargain collectively. And these standards will ensure that Peruvian children have the right to learn in classrooms, rather than toil in sweatshops."

Public Citizen hosted a conference call with reporters and international labor leaders Friday to denounce the plan.

"We here in Peru are looking forward to looking at the events surrounding the discussion of [the] free trade agreement, in part with regard to the authorities in Peru, because we're seeing they're saying one thing in Washington and another thing in Peru," said Julio Cesar Bazan, president of the Confederacion Unitaria de Trabajadores, a Peruvian labor federation.

Through a translator, Bazan said that "the promise of the government of Peru to carry forward the bipartisan agreement about labor is not being -- you know -- they're not carrying forward this promise because they are not passing the general labor law."

Though their reasons for opposing the plan are different, the labor opposition marks a rare case of unity between the labor movement and Republicans in the U.S. Congress who are hesitant to vocally support the plan because of the addition of ILO provisions.

In his opening statement at the Sept. 11 hearing, Finance Committee Ranking Member Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said he would support the agreement "even though" the ILO standards had been included "so that we can turn to our other agreements with Colombia and Panama before the end of the year."

"Implementation will provide substantial benefits for U.S. farmers, manufacturers and service providers," Grassley said. "Peruvians will benefit significantly as well." He also praised the Peruvian government for demonstrating "that it is committed to market liberalization and to strengthening its relationship with the United States."

Yvette Pena Lopes of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters told reporters on the conference call Friday she was "dumbfounded" that the Democratic Congress would support expanding free trade agreements because she said they have "only shown damage to our economy."

She called for "more dialogue, debate [and] discussion" before Congress approves of the agreement.

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