Congress Caves on CAFTA: Labor Vows Reprisals for Two NY Reps Who Cast Critical “Yes” Votes

Susan Chenelle Aug 10, 2005

Following a marathon session of arm-twisting on the part of the Bush administration on the night of July 27 – during which “the floor of the House of Representatives resembled the set of ‘Let’s Make a Deal,’” according to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) – the House of Representatives approved the long-contested Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), by the slim margin of 217-215.

The vote was a blow to the coalition of labor, community and social justice organizations that had campaigned against CAFTA for more than two years, but they are not giving up the fight. Opponents to the agreement directed their ire toward the “CAFTA 15,” as the 15 Democrats who sided with the administration were quickly dubbed. Among them were two representatives from New York City, Rep. Ed Towns of Brooklyn and Rep. Gregory Meeks of Queens.

“Stop CAFTA” coalition members had met with both Meeks and Towns, and had felt hopeful that they would vote no. “Towns’ legislative director told us two weeks before the vote that they vote with labor on everything, that they thought this was an exploitative agreement, and that they would take a hard look at it, but that she suspected that he would vote against it,” says Burke Stansbury of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador.

Like its predecessor, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between Canada, Mexico and the US, CAFTA eliminates tariffs on goods and services traded between the signatory countries: Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and the U.S. Proponents argue that the removal of trade barriers will benefit the economies of all parties; opponents denounce the agreement for its lack of protections for labor and the environment, and point to the devastating effects NAFTA has had on workers in Mexico and the US over the past ten years, including hundreds of thousands of lost jobs, lower wages and poorer working conditions.

“We’re going to try to keep the pressure on them, and make it so they can’t forget that they sold out,” said Stansbury. “The leadership in the labor movement is saying that these people are never going to get funding again.”

What leverage organized labor still has at this point is debatable. Labor made similar threats after the passage of NAFTA in 1993, with negligible consequences. Both Meeks and Towns have received large contributions from unions in the past, but the AFL-CIO’s recent split might have made them feel that labor would be even less able to inflict any serious reprisals.

However, at a press conference at City Hall on Aug. 7, Brian McLaughlin, president of the New York City Central Labor Council, noted that unions from both sides of the split were represented in the coalition, and contended that on such broad issues labor remains united. He called the approval of CAFTA, “not a ‘yes’ vote for CAFTA, but a ‘no’ vote for good-paying American jobs.”

No one at the press conference, which was organized by the Working Families Party, was willing to commit to running candidates against either Meeks or Towns in 2006, both of whom ran unopposed in their previous elections. But the coalition pledged to inform the 75,000 union members residing in the two congressmen’s districts about how their representatives voted and why it will hurt them.

Stansbury also noted that, “there is going to be a real battle in terms of implementing CAFTA. There are some things that are mandated by it, like, when it goes into effect, tariffs will begin to be phased out, but some of the worst aspects of it—like privatization of things like healthcare, water and education—those aren’t set in stone by CAFTA. There’s a lot of ways that we can keep CAFTA an issue, and people in Central America are certainly going to keep fighting it.”

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