Worried about the failure of “free trade” deals for the workers and farmers in both nations, U.S. and South Korean unions have joined forces to oppose the proposed Korean-U.S. Free Trade Agreement.
The initiative comes just after GOP President George W. Bush successfully pushed his latest legislation implementing a “free trade” agreement with the Persian Gulf nation of Oman--without any labor rights, as usual--through the GOP-run Congress in mid-July.
But that pact was with a nation with no labor protections and a bad labor rights record. The proposed free trade treaty with South Korea would drop all barriers between the world’s largest economy and its 10th largest. In several cases, such as cars, Korean products directly compete with those produced by U.S. firms. And South Korea has an active--and sometimes oppressed by law enforcement--labor movement.
The U.S. and South Korea held their first round of trade talks in Washington in June. Their second round, in Seoul, ended acrimoniously on July 14. Bush wants the deal to be done before his “fast-track” authority to push trade treaties through Congress on just yes-or-no up-or-down votes, without amendments, expires in mid-2007.
If passed, the U.S.-South Korea pact would be the biggest for Washington since the jobs-losing North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, and it’s the harsh results of NAFTA for millions of U.S., Canadian and Mexican workers, farmers and indigenous people that concern unions in both nations.
In a joint statement, the AFL-CIO, Change to Win, the Korean Confederation
of Trade Unions and Federation of Korean Trade Unions said: “Over the last 12 years, NAFTA has accelerated and deepened corporate mobility and flexibility, while costing more than 1 million jobs and job opportunities in the U.S., putting increased downward pressure on U.S. wages, and undermining environmental and public health protections. In Mexico, workers’ wages have fallen or stagnated in real terms, while inequality has worsened, and the number of people in poverty has grown.”
The unions are demanding that any U.S.-South Korea trade agreement guarantee workers’ rights--in particular the right to organize--along with environmental standards and protection of public services. Except for labor rights in Jordan, those conditions were missing from the texts of prior “free trade” pacts under both Bush and his predecessor, Democratic President Bill Clinton. Clinton pushed NAFTA through.
In June a delegation of Korean unionists came to Washington during the first
round of free-trade talks. In July, a delegation from the AFL-CIO and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union went to Seoul for the second round.
There, some 25,000 farmers, laborers, office workers, students and others demonstrated while bargainers for the two governments talked at a posh hotel. Police attacked demonstrators with steady water cannon bursts after some protesters pushed on buses and threw sand at police standing atop the vehicles.
The U.S. union delegation reported that at their July 10 joint press conference
in Seoul, with 100 union members in attendance, more than 3,000 South Korean
riot police showed up and “sought to intimidate” them.
“Police surrounded the stage and the 100 or so people who came for the press
conference. Police pushed and shoved people with their shields for a while, then
pulled back and allowed the press conference to go on for a few minutes, then charged the crowd, yelling. They brought a tow truck to take the stage away,” wrote ILWU Communications Specialist Mary Rein.
“We mounted the stage in the midst of a melée,” said Amy Masciola, international
campaigns coordinator for the AFL-CIO Organizing Department. Though the police completely disrupted the press conference, the labor leaders managed to make their statements, even if few observers could hear them. The free trade agreement is big news in Korea, said Masciola, adding that “everyone is talking about it.”
ILWU organizer Agustin Ramirez said many Koreans are concerned free trade will impact their lives negatively. “They see cheap rice from the U.S. destroying their rice industry, the way cheap U.S. corn destroyed farmers in Mexico. They see their pharmaceutical industry destroyed and fear laws encouraging energy-efficient cars will be out and SUVs will come into play. Members of the theatrical union worry that laws supporting local production of movies will be weakened,” Ramirez explained.
A dispute over pharmaceuticals cut short the July round of U.S.-South Korea talks. South Korea has a list of drugs reimbursable under the nation’s health insurance system. U.S. negotiators called that unacceptable and discriminatory. Apparently, say observers, U.S. drug companies are anxious to get into the Korean market unfettered.
The status of South Korean goods manufactured in North Korea is also seen as another sticking point in hammering out the agreement. South Korea is building an economic development zone in the North as a jointly agreed-on step towards the country’s reunification.
Terrie Albano writes for The People's Weekly World. This article was distributed by Press Associates, Inc., news service.