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Top US Labor Leader Calls Trade Deals Flawed

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka (file photo)
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka (file photo)

The head of the biggest union organization in the United States says flawed trade agreements are helping to destroy the American middle class, and is calling for a new approach that puts jobs ahead of corporate profits.  AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka says Washington needs to change tax incentives and investment policies so they encourage companies to keep jobs and production in the United States instead moving to lower-wage nations.  The comments come as the debate is heating up in Washington over pending trade deals with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka says trade problems are one reason that there are 15 million unemployed people in the United States and another 25 million who are under-employed, and he thinks Washington's approach to trade is broken.

"Our trade and economic policies have not served the interest of the United States as a world power by delivering the good jobs or completive edge that we must have.  And around the world, inequality and strife are expanding even as trade and investment flow grow, and trade agreements multiply," Trumka said.

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The former coal miner says to fix that, Washington must revise tax laws and trade deals with the goal of maximizing employment rather than just profit.  He repeated a call for investment in the infrastructure and education that he says will make the United States, and its workers, more competitive in a global market.

The union leader also argues that the U.S. Congress should not yet approve a long-stalled free trade agreement with Colombia because, in his view, that nation does too little to protect labor organizers from violence.  Trumka says 51 union officials were assassinated there in the past year, including two who were in the middle of negotiating an agreement.

"He was on a bus, there was a bus that commuted from the mine to the town about three-quarters of a mile (nearly a kilometer)) away.  They assassinated the ((Union)) Vice President at the mine.  They got half way back to town, they stopped the bus with all the workers on it, make him kneel down in the ground and they put a bullet through his head," he said.

He also says a pending free trade agreement with South Korea is likely to cost many U.S. jobs, even though it has been re-negotiated to do more to boost U.S. auto exports to that important market.

Trumka's comments come as the Obama Administration is getting ready to submit a free trade agreement with South Korea to Congress for approval.  Opposition Republicans in Congress are urging the administration to also submit pending agreements with Colombia and Panama for approval at the same time.

Trade supporters, like Ohio Senator Rob Portman, say delaying trade agreements allows competitors to win new customers and take market share away from U.S. exporters.  Portman, a Republican and former U.S. Trade Representative, says trade agreements help the U.S. economy because the United States tends to have trade surpluses with nations where Washington has hammered out free trade agreements.

Portman is optimistic that the trade agreements will move forward soon. "Based on what the president and his cabinet have said recently, it seems like we many have a basis to move forward on some of these agreements.  I'm very hopeful of course that we can do it and do it very quickly," Portman said.

The Obama Administration has pledged to double U.S. exports over the next few years as a way to cut high unemployment.  White House officials say each $1 billion in exports creates thousands of jobs in the United States.

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