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U.S. unions say they'll fight U.S.-Colombia trade deal

By Doug Palmer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. labor groups will fight any attempt by President Barack Obama to strike a deal with Republicans for approval of a free trade pact with Colombia, an AFL-CIO official said on Wednesday.

"It's our position that Colombia still has quite a long way to go to really tackle questions of violence and threats of violence against trade unionists," said Jeff Vogt, deputy director of the 12.2 million-member labor federation's international department.

"I think we'd be vociferously opposed (if Obama submitted the agreement to Congress). Colombia continues to be such a bad actor on the labor and human rights," Vogt said.

Since his Democratic Party lost control of the House of Representatives and a number of seats in the Senate, Obama has come under increased pressure from Republicans to submit for congressional votes three trade deals left over from former President George W. Bush's administration.

Many -- but by no means all -- Democrats also want Obama to move forward with the three pacts.

Obama has responded by negotiating changes in the South Korea agreement to address U.S. auto industry concerns, and by telling Congress in his State of the Union speech on Tuesday he wanted that pact approved "as soon as possible."

He also mentioned his interest in finalizing two other trade deals with Panama and Colombia, but offered no timetable for action on the pacts.

The vague reference to the two Latin American agreements was enough to unsettle critics of the pacts, while stirring criticism from others who want Obama to show stronger leadership to win their approval.

"Frankly, I am disappointed by the lack of an action plan or commitment to move the long-stalled Colombia and Panama trade agreements," said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, a Michigan Republican.

"Our free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama were signed more than 3 1/2 years ago, so it's extremely disappointing the president did not lay out a timeline for submitting them to Congress," echoed Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat.


But many rank-and-file House Democrats strongly oppose the Colombia agreement. They and the AFL-CIO, America's largest labor federation, say Colombia has not done enough to stop the killings of labor unionists and to prosecute those responsible.

Colombia's new president, Juan Manuel Santos, has at least "toned down the extreme anti-union rhetoric" of his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, Vogt said.

U.S. business groups and other supporters of the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement argue that Colombia is a much safer country for union workers and all its citizens than it was before Uribe took office in 2002.

They note Colombia is a stalwart U.S. ally in a region where some leftist leaders, such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, are open foes of the United States, and argue the trade pact is needed to prevent U.S. companies from losing sales to competitors in Europe and Canada.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, noting the support of more than 1,000 companies and business and farm organizations, said in its blog on Wednesday, "The White House just needs to take a deep breath and move forward" with the pact.

(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Peter Cooney)