Colombia Trade Pact: Bad for Workers in California AND Colombia

As Americans start the New Year and look for a positive ray of light on the economic horizon, we need our state and national leaders to forge agreements that help working families on Main Street while corralling the excesses of bankers on Wall Street.

The financial industry ran roughshod with little or no accountability until it finally spiraled out of control forcing the rest of America into the same whirlwind of uncertainty and doubt. Millions of working families lost everything – their retirement accounts, their jobs and their homes. But Wall Street, being “too big to fail” received billions in bailout funds and got back on its feet – on the backs of everyday Americans. And how did these wealthy executives thank us – by doling out six, seven and even eight-figure bonuses to the same financial leaders who got us into this mess.

Meanwhile, Middle America waits for job leads, for help with mortgages, for any kind of hope about the future.

To find our way forward in 2010, our economic policies must be rooted in more than just job creation; they must be about justice – justice for American workers and their foreign counterparts. We have to rein in excessive corporate power and unfair trade practices.

American workers benefit when their foreign counterparts in the labor movement have the power to enforce rules and to operate in a system that holds people accountable. Unfortunately, this is not the case in Colombia. Workers attempting to organize there lose more than their jobs. Many lose their lives.

That is why I’m authoring Assembly Joint Resolution 27. Supported by the California Labor Federation, AJR 27 calls on the United States Congress to oppose a false free trade agreement between the United States and Colombia. An agreement was reached between Colombia and President George W. Bush’s administration on Nov. 22, 2006. Colombia’s Congress approved the agreement in 2007. It is still pending in the United States.

Under current Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, 500 unionists have been murdered, including more than 20 in 2009 alone. Yet, the Office of the Attorney General in Colombia has secured convictions in just 5 percent of the slayings. Paramilitary organizations associated with the powerful political and economic interests make the threat of death far too real for workers who are simply exercising their right to organize, bargain collectively and, when necessary, strike. About 30 percent of those assassinated in Colombia during the last year were teachers.

Human rights violations occur frequently, along with systematic surveillance of unionists. The International Labor Organization says Colombia’s labor laws fall short of minimum labor standards.

Anyone who has met Yessika Hoyos should realize passing AJR 27 is the right thing to do. Hoyos’ father, Jorge Daria Hoyos, was a Colombian labor leader before he was assassinated seven years ago. Now, Yessika carries on her father’s fight with undaunted courage.

“We are brothers and sisters united by hope, by dreams of justice, truth and freedom,” Hoyos told members of the U.S. Congress. “With the good fortune of love and solidarity, we have found many older brothers and sisters around the world who keep us going on the path of hope with their encouragement and faith.”

The AFL-CIO honored Hoyos with its 2008 George Meaney-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award. Her determination in the face of death threats is inspirational to those of us who have made our living in the labor movement.

Workers everywhere are entitled to fundamental rights. History is filled with examples of workplace abuse and the exploitation of workers. Without the strong voice of unions to hold those in power to account, these abuses will continue. That’s not good for working families in Colombia or California. AJR 27 will send a message that our trade agreements must put workers first. That would be a positive step in the right direction.