Almost a thousand days into his term, President Obama has at last submitted the trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama for an up or down vote in Congress.
All three agreements appear to have majority support in both the House and the Senate. Organized labor is putting up its usual anti-free-trade fight against all three, with AFL-CIO boss Richard Trumka coming out swinging in a Politico op-ed this week. He makes the standard union argument that Colombia is an unworthy free-trade partner because of ongoing violence against union members in that country.
In a Free Trade Bulletin earlier this year, my Cato colleague Juan Carlos Hidalgo and I examined the commercial benefits of the agreement with Colombia as well as the hollowness of the union charge. In the past decade, Colombia has made tremendous progress against violence in general, and especially violence aimed at union members. In fact, as we write in the FTB:
The statistics on the number of killings against union members vary depending on the source, with the figure from the government's Ministry of Social Protection being lower than that of the National Union School (ENS for its acronym in Spanish), a Colombian nongovernmental organization affiliated with the labor movement. However, both sources show a steep decline in the number of killings since 2001. Moreover, when compared with the total number of homicides in the country, killings of union members clearly have dropped at a faster rate than those of the general population (see Figure 1).
Critics of the FTA fail to recognize that violent crime affects all levels of Colombian society, not only trade unions. What is more, the statistics show that union members enjoy more security than the population at large.
Looking at the homicide rate as defined by the number of murders per 100,000 inhabitants, the rate for the total population in 2010 was 33.9 per 100,000, whereas the rate for union killings was 5.3 per 100,000 unionists that same year (using the statistics of the ENS). That means that the homicide rate for the overall population is 6 times higher than that for union members.
Having just returned from a speaking trip last week to Medellín, Colombia, I can vouch that, after a difficult period of battling Marxist guerrillas and drug cartels, Colombia has once again become a normal country with a growing economy. Medellín is a bustling, business-oriented city with the usual challenges of traffic congestion. The students I spoke with at EAFIT University seemed eager for closer ties with the United States, and they do not understand why it has taken almost five years since the signing of the agreement for Congress to schedule a vote on it.
As I explained in an interview with the city’s leading newspaper (conducted in English, but translated here in Spanish), the politicians in Washington have run out of excuses for not establishing free trade between our two countries.
[Our Cato colleague Doug Bandow made the case for a trade agreement with South Korea in a study we released last year.]