Since 1986, more than 2,500 union leaders have been killed in Colombia, including 39 last year and 38 so far in 2008 -- many the victims of hired hit men, fair trade advocates say, whom Colombian authorities seldom bring to justice.
Dave Reichert, the Republican who represents Washington's 8th Congressional District and its high-tech Eastside, says the situation should improve once Congress passes the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, which he says will encourage accountability and the rule of law.
Opponent Darcy Burner, a former Microsoft manager, opposes the treaty, saying the United States should not sanction assassination.
In a state where one out of three jobs depends on foreign trade, it's a tough stand to take, but one supported by unionized Boeing engineers and machinists who say they've watched their jobs shipped overseas thanks to free-trade agreements -- a prime reason, the machinists say, they are currently on strike.
Since 2000, and the 1993 passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, more than 3.5 million manufacturing jobs have been lost in the United States, with the Seattle-based Washington Fair Trade Coalition saying a majority of Americans now think U.S. trade policy is on the wrong track. To stop the offshoring, the coalition supports renegotiating NAFTA and other treaties -- a topic hotly debated by Burner and others at an Oct. 16 forum the coalition held at Bellevue Community College.
"Free trade agreements have failed," said David Henry, a striking Boeing machinist.
He pointed to what he called "the disappearing airplane" -- Boeing's new 787 -- as an example. In the manufacturing of the older 737, all its parts were made by Boeing or other U.S. companies. Today, out of the 787's 7,000 parts, Henry said, Boeing workers have contracts to make only two -- the vertical tail and body joints for the wings -- with the rest of the manufacturing outsourced overseas.
Boeing envisioned saving U.S. labor costs by making the parts overseas and having its at-home workers assemble them. But the much-lauded "snap-together" model hasn't worked: Henry said snafus with overseas parts manufacturing have not only forced Boeing to bring a lot of the parts work back home, but caused it to push back the 787's launch deadline several times.
"Some of these countries don't have the power grid to sustain the manufacturing," Henry said. "They use generators."
That pollutes the air. But Sierra Club regional representative Kathleen
Ridihalgh said nothing can be done about it or other environmental degradation, such as the increased deforestation she cited under the Peru Free Trade Agreement, because trade treaties have language in them that trumps environmental and safety standards.
The World Trade Organization, which oversees treaty disputes, has "never once ruled in favor of environmental protection," she said.
Investment advisor James Postma countered that any reduction in trade would only hurt Washington. "If we restrain trade," he said, "Washington state will become just another rust belt."
Burner disagreed. "There is an enormous difference between saying we'll have no rules... or saying trade is great," she said. "Let's use our position of influence with respect to the environment, intellectual property, and labor."
If elected, she would be the only Washington Congressional member to oppose the Colombia Free Trade Agreement. A spokesperson for Reichert, who cited a scheduling conflict in declining to appear on the panel, did not return a call seeking comment. But in an April Seattle Times article, he outlined his reasons for supporting the treaty, which Congress has put on hold until after the November election.
Among his reasons, Colombia "continues its remarkable transformation," Reichert wrote in the editorial. "Since 2002, kidnappings are down 83 percent [and] murders of unionists are down more than 80 percent" -- an idea David Henry scoffed at on the panel.
"[So it's] OK to kill the other 20 percent?" he asked.
Burner said no. "The idea that we would say it's OK to murder labor organizers on the street," she said, "is ridiculous."