Despite surprise vote by Wyden, labor loses trade votes

Associate Editor

By a more than 2-to-1 margin, the U.S. Senate voted July 31 to approve new NAFTA-like trade agreements with Chile and Singapore.

The outcome of the votes was no surprise to labor leaders since the Senate has always approved so-called free-trade treaties in previous votes, and the House had approved the two treaties the week before.

The Senate vote was 66 to 31 in favor of the Chile agreement, with 23 Democrats and 43 Republicans for it, and 23 Democrats and seven Republicans against it. The Singapore agreement passed 66 to 32, with 22 Democrats and 44 Republicans in support, and 24 Democrats and seven Republicans in opposition.

Of the four U.S. senators seeking the Democratic nomination for president, John Edwards of North Carolina voted against both, Bob Graham of Florida voted for both, and John Kerry of Massachusetts and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut did not cast votes. A spokesperson for Lieberman said he was at a campaign event in New Hampshire, but would have voted for the treaties had he been present.

Washington Democratic Senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray voted in favor of both agreements, as did Oregon Republican Senator Gordon Smith.

But Oregon U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat, voted against both treaties — a notable departure for a representative known throughout his tenure as a “free-trader.”

In a written statement explaining his vote, Wyden said he will continue to be “a staunch supporter of free trade,” but that by using trade treaties to rewrite immigration policy, the Bush Administration had abused the authority Congress granted it last year to negotiate trade treaties.

“The Chile and Singapore Free Trade agreements would allow the permanent hiring of international workers even if American workers are available – something no trade agreement has done before,” Wyden explained.

The two agreements create special visas for up to 1,400 Chilean and 5,400 Singaporean “professionals,” who could work in the United States indefinitely.


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Elizabeth Drake, international policy analyst at the national AFL-CIO, said the Chile and Singapore votes are a defeat for organized labor. However, she said, an analysis of the vote bodes well for the fight against an even bigger treaty now being negotiated — the Central America Free Trade Area (CAFTA). Under CAFTA, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica would enter into a free trade zone with the United States. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick has said he hopes to complete CAFTA negotiations by the end of this year.

Drake said many members of Congress, particularly centrist Democrats, opposed the lack of labor rights protections in the Chile and Singapore agreements, but voted for them anyway because both countries are small and have relatively decent labor conditions. The Chile and Singapore pacts require only that countries enforce their existing labor laws.

The Bush Administration has already proposed an identical labor rights clause for CAFTA — but Central American labor laws and enforcement are shoddy or non-existent. Labor conditions throughout the region are egregious, with the worst abuses tied directly to the sectors most closely related to export trade.

For that reason, Drake said, a number of representatives who voted for the treaties with Chile and Singapore say they would not vote for such a treaty with Central America.

Plus, CAFTA would have a much bigger economic impact, particularly in textiles and apparel.

Drake also reports that negotiations on a hemisphere-wide Free Trade Area of the Americas are stalled because new left-leaning governments in Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela say they don’t want trade treaties to extend to investment, services and intellectual property.

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