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What’s a Few Dead Labor Leaders Between Friends? Colombia Free Trade, Then and Now

Ezra Klein

Yesterday Obama scored another “w” with the passage of the Korea, Panama and Columbia Free Trade deals — virtually unchanged since Bush tried to push them through before he left office.

In 2008, the Columbia deal was a big campaign issue, with both Obama and Clinton denouncing any agreement until human rights conditions had been addressed.   Obama declared he would oppose the Columbia deal “because the violence against unions in Colombia would make a mockery of the very labor protections that we have insisted be included in these kinds of agreements.”

When the Wall Street Journal reported that Mark Penn had met with the Colombians to talk about helping them pass the agreement in April of 2008, there was such an uproar that Clinton was forced to fire Penn.  The sudden surfeit of concern for dead labor leaders from the ordinarily labor-neutral commentariat was touching. I was certainly happy about it.

Since that time, the murder of labor leaders in Colombia has only accelerated, but the value of their lives has apparently declined.  Because when the Colombia Free Trade agreement passed yesterday, it was awfully lonely in the “what about the dead labor leaders” room.

Many people want to blame Obama for going back on his campaign promises. Which he fully deserves. But there is a whole community of people who facilitate that, who make it quite painless for him to flop around without fear of political consequence.  Whose values are as transient and malleable as his are.  He couldn’t do it without them.

Ezra Klein then

A search of the American Prospect archives for Ezra’s work on Colombia Trade before he went to the Washington Post:

April 4, 2008:  “TIME FOR MARK PENN TO GO: Looks like Mark Penn—Hillary Clinton’s chief strategist—met with Colombia’s ambassador to the US this week to advise him on how best to pass a bilateral free trade pact.  So, on the one hand, Clinton voices opposition to this Free Trade Pact while running for president amidst electorates that are against further free trade deals. On the other hand, she pays Mark Penn hundreds of thousands of dollars to act as her chief adviser, and he’s meeting with official representatives of the Colombian government in order to help them craft a strategy that will lead to the passage of such an act….It’s time for Clinton to make Penn step down. Either from her campaign, or from his other jobs.”

April 7, 2008, Ezra sets “THE COLOMBIAN CONTEXT,” riffing on Chris Hayes:  “They’re murdering trade unionists. EPI even has a helpful graph, complete with a cross-reference of how much energy the Colombian government is putting into the protection of union organizers and the prosecution of their hunters:

Sobering stuff. And something the United States should demand an end to long before we consider a Free Trade Agreement with Colombia. Whatever you believe about the enforcability of labor standards enshrined in transnational trade legislation, they’re obviously a joke if actual Colombians can’t even survive efforts to create unions.”

Ezra Klein Now

A search of Ezra’s Washington Post archives reveals no charts about dead labor leaders.  This is every post I was able to find written by Ezra that mentions the word “Colombia”:

8/26/2011 — Free trade agreements are still in limbo, reports Jennifer Steinhauer: “Even with almost zero common ground between them, President Obama and Republicans in Congress generally concur on the need for free-trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. But they disagree on whose fault it is that those agreements — years in the making — have still not been approved.”

9/07/2011Mitt Romney has unveiled his jobs plan, report Philip Rucker and Karen Tumulty: “The far-reaching economic plan that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney put forward on Tuesday relies heavily on the premise that reviving the economy depends on getting the government out of the way of corporations…He laid out 10 actions he said he would take on his first day in the Oval Office [including implementation of] free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea.”

9/8/2011 — Republicans are amping up the pressure on Obama over trade, reports Tom Barkley: “House Republicans sought Wednesday to kick-start the stalled U.S. trade agenda, winning passage of a tariff bill that could pave the way for eventual approval of free-trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.”

9/8/2011 — (Reprint of the President’s “jobs” speech):  “Now it’s time to clear the way for a series of trade agreements that would make it easier for American companies to sell their products in Panama, Colombia, and South Korea.”

10/3/2011Obama is submitting a number of trade deals for final passage this week, reports Elizabeth Williamson: “President Barack Obama could send trade pacts with South Korea, Colombia and Panama to Congress for approval early this week, setting the stage for final passage of the agreements in mid-October after five years of political combat. Together, the pacts could boost U.S. exports by $13 billion annually–the Korea pact alone is worth $11 billion–though there would also be more imports and a wider array of foreign services available in the U.S.”

10/4/2011 — Obama has officially submitted three trade deals for approval, report Jake Sherman and Jennifer Epstein: “President Barack Obama sent three long-stalled trade agreements to Congress Monday afternoon, just as House Republicans greenlighted the deals to move to the floor.”

10/6/2011 — A House panel’s moving forward on trade pacts, reports Felicia Sonmez: “Three long-stalled trade pacts with Colombia, South Korea and Panama took a key step closer to passage Wednesday as members of the House Ways and Means Committee voted overwhelmingly to approve the deals. ‘Today has been five years in the making and could not come at a better time for American workers, consumers and businesses,’ House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) said in a statement…The panel approved the South Korea deal – the largest of the three – on a 31-to-5 vote. The Panama pact passed the committee on a 32-to-3 vote, and the Colombia pact passed on a vote of 24 to 12. Opponents of the deals — principally liberal Democrats and organized labor — argue that the trade agreements would lead to job losses; they also say that Colombia has not done enough to address anti-union violence.”

10/6/2011Free trade is important to national security, writes Tom Donilon: “On Monday, President Obama submitted three critical free trade agreements to Congress and asked both chambers to advance them expeditiously. Passage of these agreements is a matter not just of economic and commercial opportunity but also of national security.”

10/11/2011Trade adjustment assistance is expected to pass the House, reports Russell Berman: “House Republicans expect to overcome conservative opposition this week and pass a worker assistance bill that has been the chief hurdle to completing a trio of bilateral trade agreements. Under an agreement with the Senate and the White House, House GOP leaders will call a vote on a renewal of Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) legislation on Wednesday, immediately after the House approves trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. Extending TAA, which provides health insurance, worker training and other benefits to U.S. workers negatively affected by foreign trade, has been a Democratic priority, and the Obama administration for months refused to submit the three trade deals for congressional ratification without assurances from Republican leaders that the adjustment assistance would be renewed. The TAA program expired in February.”  No further commentary from Ezra.

Ezra likes to write about Occupy Wall Street (yay!) with big pictures and lots of talk about how the Democrats are “supporting” the protesters.  But as Naomi Klein said her speech at Occupy Wall Street, there is a direct connection between the messaging, energy and even many of the individuals involved in #OWS and the anti-globalization movement of the 1990s. That movement rose up in opposition to NAFTA and the very “free trade” agreements that Ezra now finds “important to national security.”

If there is one good thing to come out of the passage of these bills, which are estimated to cost over 200,000 American jobs and increase the trade deficit by billions of dollars, I hope is is the message that it sends to those participating in #OWS protests across the country.

This is what happens to the things you believe in at the hands of the Democratic party that hopes to cannibalize and subvert your energy…and those like Ezra Klein who carry their water.

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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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