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Labor organizations tentatively support international trade deals

WASHINGTON—Organized labor gave qualified support Friday to a deal between the White House and congressional Democrats that includes new language on labor and the environment in four pending free-trade agreements.

The deal announced late Thursday covers trade deals negotiated with Peru, Panama, Colombia and South Korea and requires them to enforce several basic international standards—the right to form a union, the right to bargain collectively and the prohibition of compulsory or slave labor, child labor and workplace discrimination.

These principles are drawn from the International Labor Organization's 1998 Declaration of Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, and all four countries already subscribe to them. But there's little enforcement of the principles anywhere.

By enshrining the commitment in a free-trade deal, organized labor hopes it will force U.S. trade officials to take action when a trading partner willfully fails to uphold the basic labor principles.

The spotty history of enforcement was one reason labor groups and some manufacturers gave qualified support for what the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) insisted was a "fundamental shift" in U.S. trade policy.

"While recognizing the real progress made in the approach taken with Peru and Panama on workers' rights and the environment, we reserve final judgment until we have reviewed the agreements in their entirety," said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney in a statement.

The U.S. Business and Industry Council, comprised of smaller U.S. manufacturers hurt by globalization, doubted that the deal would deliver any real change. President Kevin L. Kearns called the labor and environment provisions unenforceable.

"To date the United States has not been able to enforce current trade agreements with provisions on, for example, subsidies or theft of intellectual property," he said in a statement. "Why would anyone expect a better track record on labor and environmental provisions simply because they too become part of trade agreements?"

U.S. business was more supportive.

"I do think it goes further than in the past agreements, but perhaps not as far as some in the labor community wanted, but we believe that's the nature of a compromise," said Doug Goudie, director of trade policy for the National Association of Manufacturers.

Despite lukewarm support, experts such as David Lewis, a trade consultant with Manchester Trade, a lobbying and advisory firm, believe Democrats will support deals that include the new labor language.

"I think the Democrats got a green light from the AFL-CIO or it wouldn't happen . . . substantively speaking, the Democrats have their people in line," said Lewis, adding that current text on intellectual property protections may erode some GOP support.

USTR officials were confident that the deal will result in passage of the trade agreements with Panama and Peru, the latter only after inclusion of environmental measures to ban illegal logging and especially logging of endangered mahogany. Peru recently committed itself publicly to hiring more labor inspectors.

The Colombia and South Korea trade deals are less certain, USTR officials said. Hundreds of union organizers have been murdered in Colombia over the past decade, and there's bipartisan opposition in Congress to the beef and auto provisions of the South Korea deal.

Under the new deal, when a labor or environmental dispute emerges:

_The U.S. Trade Representative must request bilateral consultations with the trading partner.

_If there isn't resolution, USTR can ask for a dispute-resolution panel to be seated. It's comprised of an agreed upon list of outside experts.

_If that panel finds guilt, it could order that the trading partner accept technical assistance to remedy the situation. Or it could choose to impose fines and even authorize compensatory trade sanctions.

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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