Economy & Trade, Headlines, Labour, Latin America & the Caribbean

LABOUR/TRADE-LATAM: Unions Want FTAA Put to Popular Vote to Avoid ‘Suicide’

Mario Osava

FLORIANOPOLIS, Brazil, Dec 15 2000 (IPS) - Giving in to the positions imposed by the United States to create the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) under the current conditions would be tantamount to suicide, warned central trade unions from the Southern Cone countries.

Some 700 representatives of the central trade unions of the members of South America’s leading trade bloc, the Southern Common Market (Mercosur) – Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay – called on their governments to submit an eventual continent-wide free trade treaty to national plebiscites.

The representatives of the unions of the Mercosur countries are presenting their declaration, “For a Mercosur with Jobs, Wages and Social Protection”, to the bloc’s leaders, who are meeting Friday in the southern Brazilian resort city of Florianopolis.

In the document approved at its two-day gathering Wednesday and Thursday, the “Mercosur Trade Union Summit” also urged the governments to submit the question of adhesion to the FTAA – currently being negotiated by 34 countries in the Americas, and in which the United States takes a keen interest – to popular vote through national plebiscites.

Agreements like the hemispheric trade accord could have “very negative consequences for our people,” the trade unionists stated in the letter addressed to Mercosur authorities.

They recommended that the governments consult voters before adopting decisions regarding the FTAA.

The meeting, held in the Higher School of Tourism in Florianopolis, was the second organised by the Southern Cone Coordinator of Central Trade Unions, which claims to represent 20 million workers in the region.

The demand for popular votes on the FTAA emerged from an analysis of the social situation of countries in the region since the creation of the Mercosur in 1991.

Over the past 10 years, said the labour movement document, conditions have worsened in terms of employment, income and the rights of workers in the Southern Cone region.

“The immediate adoption of policies putting top priority on resolving such problems” is urgently called for, said the trade unionists, who condemned the economic policies of governments in the region, on the argument that they were part of a “global model of integration” that had aggravated the social crisis.

The trade unions also complained that the declarations of the South American presidents who gathered in Brasilia in late August had already been forgotten.

At that time, the leaders agreed “not to yield on timetables and negotiations in the FTAA talks,” and to move towards an agreement between Mercosur and the Andean Community – South America’s two main trade blocs – to later expand the resulting arrangement to South America as a whole.

Since then, Ecuador has remained firm in its decision to “dollarise” its economy, the Plan Colombia – an anti-drug programme with a large military component – has begun to be implemented with U.S. support, and Chile renewed talks with Washington on the possibility of admission to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the letter pointed out.

The labour leaders added that the question of the creation of the FTAA by 2005 – or even 2004 if the United States and several Latin American countries have their way – had returned to the forefront, this time supported by the Chilean government and officials in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay.

These changes were “impositions” that amounted to “suicide” for the people of the South, the trade unions declared.

If integration between countries of the South has fallen short due to the lack of policies for the effective promotion of development, the effects of hemispheric free trade with two of the greatest powers in the world – the United States and Canada – under the same conditions are all too predictable, the unions argued.

Within the structure of the FTAA, no channel has been created for the participation of civil society, since the majority of the negotiations and documents are not open to the public, they complained.

The union leaders called on workers in the region to mobilise in demand of modifications of the economic policies of the countries of the Southern Cone, and to “reject the pressures from the International Monetary Fund and the U.S. Treasury Department.”

They also called for an acceleration of “the creation of an economic and social bloc in Latin America,” the adoption of development policies as a Mercosur priority, and plebiscites to give voters in each country the chance to accept or reject their government’s decision to join the FTAA.

Hemispheric integration in trade, in the form in which it is occurring today, puts limits on national institutions that should decide the future of each country, while pushing aside the mechanisms that allow society to ensure a democratic administration of the state, the declaration added.

To give workers a stronger voice, the central trade unions have decided to seek alliances with other organisations of civil society in order to influence Mercosur decisions through the Economic and Social Consultative Forum, where the trade unions have a seat.

The labour movement has already chalked up victories, such as the Social and Labour Declaration approved in 1998, designed to guarantee social rights in the Mercosur, the unions pointed out.

The World Social Forum, to take place from Jan 25-30 in Porto Alegre, in southern Brazil, will draw representatives of civil society from throughout the world to discuss economic alternatives to the dominant neo-liberal model, and for “the creation and exchange of social and economic projects that promote human rights, social justice and sustainable development,” according to the announcement for the gathering.

The Forum will be held annually during the same period as the World Economic Forum, which is held in Davos, Switzerland since 1971 and “has played a key role in formulating economic policies throughout the world, sponsored by a Swiss organisation that serves as a consultant to the United Nations, and financed by more than one thousand corporations,” states the call for the Porto Alegre meeting.

The World Social Forum will also serve to strengthen South- North alliances between non-governmental organisations, trade unions and social movements, and will serve as an opportunity to strengthen the unity of the labour movement, said the Southern Cone trade union leaders.

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