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Shorter George Will: What’s The Problem With A Few Dead Union Members?

Yesterday George Bush signed a "fast track" bill that allows him to force a vote within 90 days with no amendments from Congress on the Columbia Free Trade Agreement. George Will is visibly aroused at the sight, and takes the opportunity to have a swing at both Obama and unions:

Nevertheless, U.S. unions oppose the agreement, probably to preserve the moral clarity of their monomania: Damn the details, full speed ahead in opposing more free-trade agreements, anywhere, anytime. Colombia, America’s best South American ally, shares a border with America’s most aggressive South American enemy, Hugo Chávez‘s Venezuela.

Colombia’s president, Álvaro Uribe, has made stunning progress against the drug cartels, right-wing militias and FARC, the 9,000-man Marxist terrorist group that is financed by drug smuggling and kidnapping. But Obama, nimble at the art of enveloping the courtship of interest groups in clouds of high-mindedness, says Colombia has not done enough to protect its trade unionists.

Colombia’s unions, however, document that the number of murders of their members has sharply declined. Edward Schumacher-Matos, visiting professor of Latin American studies at Harvard, notes that "it was far safer to be in a union than to be an ordinary citizen in Colombia last year": The murder rate of unionists was less than one-eighth the murder rate of Colombians generally.

Will’s ability to be sanguine about the violent deaths of people not named George Will is always impressive. But the callous, self-serving abstraction of this particular statistic does nothing to paint the true picture of what’s actually going on in Colombia, where union members are being routinely executed — dragged out of buses and shot in front of fellow workers by way of example. As a result, union density is down to less than five percent and collective bargaining coverage is lower than two percent, down from 15 percent twenty years ago (per the AFL-CIO).

Colombia is the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists, according to Escuela Nacional Sindical (ENS), a highly regarded labor institute based in Medellin, Colombia. Two thousand, two hundred and sixty two union officers and rank-and-file members have been brutally and systematically murdered since 1991. More than 400 trade unionists have been murdered since President Uribe took office in 2002, including forty in 2007 for exercising their fundamental right to form unions for a better life. In those cases where the perpetrator is known, government-supported paramilitary organizations or the armed forces or police are most often responsible.

Trade unionists say the Uribe government encourages this on behalf of Columbian business:

The number of labor activists who have been killed has declined since 2002, but the unions say Uribe’s administration has encouraged assassinations of trade unionists who cause problems for companies.

"It tries to stigmatize us, it tries to paint us as rebels, and that’s when the right-wing death squads try to kill us," said Fabio Arias, vice president of Colombia’s largest trade union federation. "These death squads still work with parts of the military and police to kill trade union members in Colombia."

In his never-ending quest for new markets, Bush has made the passage of this bill a priority. (And as Atrios notes, there’s a lot more to this bill than "free trade.") But the fact is that until workers in Columbia have the right to organize, their wages are going to be artificially depressed and jobs will continue to flow out of the United States, something Bush doesn’t give a fig about as he heads for the exit. And Uribe is openly hostile to unions:

The Colombian union leaders also detailed a government policy of “busting unions.” As an example, they pointed to Uribe’s refusal to follow a court order to reinstate and give back pay to members of the oil workers union who struck recently.

The delegation also found the Colombian government had repeatedly failed to bring its labor laws into compliance with international norms, has in many cases failed to enforce its laws protecting workers from anti-union discrimination and has erected bureaucratic and legal obstacles to union registration and collective bargaining rights.

The bill gets introduced in Congress today. It’s incredible that Mark Penn thought this was so morally inert that he could work on the Clinton campaign and represent Columbia at the same time. It’s going to be a big deal for labor — Sherrod Brown, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and Charlie Rangel have already made statements in opposition to it.  It’s not going to be okay for the Blue Dogs/CAFTA 15 to be off the reservation on this bill.

You can just see George Will peering over those pompous glasses and down his razor nose at the working people of this country and "the moral clarity of their monomania" in opposing this bill (sniff).

Others may see it as a basic regard for human dignity and life.

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Jane Hamsher

Jane Hamsher

Jane is the founder of Her work has also appeared on the Huffington Post, Alternet and The American Prospect. She’s the author of the best selling book Killer Instinct and has produced such films Natural Born Killers and Permanent Midnight. She lives in Washington DC.
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