Tom Bogdon
September 28, 2007


McCaskill either clueless or haughty when it comes to commenting on violence against labor organizers
by Tom Bogdon

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill wasn’t commenting this week on international trade, specifically a Bush administration deal with the South American nation of Colombia where government-approved violence against labor leaders has become a way of life.

At least McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat who began her political career in Kansas City, was not commenting to eKC online. Her communications director, Adrianne Marsh, did not return phone calls or respond to an email message from this online publication seeking comment on the controversial Colombia trade agreement, which is now awaiting congressional action.

This was not the first trade-related request for comment from eKC online McCaskill and/or her staff have brushed aside. In late June, calls to Maria Speiser, McCaskill’s press secretary, were not returned. Finally, Marsh, the communications director, told this reporter that McCaskill “probably would not have time” to comment for a story about whether Congress should reauthorize Fast Track trade promotion authority for the Bush administration.

The matter we called McCaskill’s office about this week was a letter to President Bush’s Commerce Secretary, Carlos M. Gutierrez, from six of McCaskill’s Senate colleagues. The letter expressed these senators’ astonishment at the Bush administration’s lack of recognition and concern about violence — including more than 400 murders — of union leaders in Colombia. The Bush administration is currently trying to slide a NAFTA-style trade agreement with Colombia through Congress.

Attached to eKC’s email to McCaskill was a copy of the senators’ Sept. 20 letter to Secretary Gutierrez signed by U.S. senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Byron Dorgan (D-SD), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Bob Casey (D-PA). It called on Gutierrez to reconsider his denial of continued violence against union leaders in Colombia.

“We were astounded by your recent statement that violence against union leaders in Colombia is ‘not a problem,’” the letter states. “On the contrary, there is overwhelming evidence that Colombia remains the most dangerous country in the world in which to be a labor leader.

“Over the past several months, since the administration negotiated and signed a free trade agreement with Colombia, both the administration and the Uribe government have made various statements about strengthening the rule of law in Colombia and protecting civilians,” the letter continues.

“However, there is ample evidence that the Colombian government has not taken the steps necessary to ensure prompt and proper investigation and prosecution of murders and those engaged in criminal actions against workers exercising their basic rights.”

The letter continues that in recent testimony before Congress, a former Colombian military officer “stated clearly” that soldiers continue to be taught to view union leaders as “guerrillas” and targets them for government assaults. The letter states that current investigations into violence against labor leaders have implicated numerous individuals with close ties to the Uribe regime.

“Indeed, Colombia continues to have one of the world’s highest rates of trade unionist killings,” the letter states. “In view of all this, it was deeply troubling to read your comments suggesting that while there is a problem with violence in Colombia, there is no specific problem relating to violence against labor leaders.

“It is difficult to contemplate a trade deal with Colombia given its continuing record of violence against labor leaders,” the letter concludes. “We hope you will reconsider your position on this matter.”

Gutierrez’s press secretary declined comment to eKC online about the letter by Sen. Sherrod Brown and the five other members of the U.S. Senate. But Bush appointee Gutierrez was quoted speaking about his view of the merits of the Colombia trade deal in a Sept. 17 Reuters news service article:

“I think to deny Colombia a free trade agreement would go down as one of the biggest foreign policy mistakes in our hemisphere in our time,” Gutierrez said in a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which strongly supports the Colombia deal.

We can only speculate why McCaskill has evaded commenting on this and other trade issues, but to organized labor the Colombia trade deal is a matter of great concern. Organizing labor unions in countries like Colombia, where the government is often closely aligned with multinational corporations, is difficult enough without a constant threat of violence.

Does McCaskill, who won her Senate seat with strong union support, want to ride the fence on the Colombia trade deal for some reason?

Maybe McCaskill is taking a page out of the Democratic Leadership Council playbook of President Bill Clinton, who was willing to divide the Democratic Party by ramming NAFTA through Congress over the strong objections of labor, environmental, religious and human rights groups. In return, of course, Clinton garnered tens of millions of dollars in campaign contributions.

As a former Kansas Citian, McCaskill would certainly know how The Kansas City Star covers trade issues. The Star basically ignores trade except for an occasional item in the business section. However, shortly before key congressional votes, rightwing Editorial Board member E. Thomas McClanahan whips up a puff piece about the wonders of the free market, totally ignoring the steep downside of bad trade agreements..

It is worth noting what states the senators who wrote to Gutierrez represent. With the exception of Sanders of Vermont and Dorgan of South Dakota, all are from industrial states like Missouri, which have been hard hit by the global “race to the bottom” in wages and environmental standards since about the time NAFTA was enacted.

The U.S. economy’s main export in recent years has been jobs, with three million manufacturing jobs shipped to Mexico, China and other countries during George W. Bush’s term in office alone. What we have “gained” is a massive trade deficit now approaching $1 trillion per year. And, of course, we are fast losing our industrial base, once the envy of the world.

Brown of Ohio, who, like McCaskill, was first elected to the Senate in November 2006, is a former member of the U.S. House who has been particularly effective in representing his state’s and the nation’s workers, farmers and consumers on trade issues. In representing Missouri, McCaskill would do well to check out Brown‘s statement on trade, which can be looked at on the senator’s web site,

As for McCaskill, she takes understandable pride in occupying the same desk on the Senate floor that was once used by another Democratic senator from Missouri, Harry S. Truman. But at this point in her Senate career, McCaskill is no Harry Truman. Two obvious differences between the two are that Truman was straightforward on the issues and he expected common courtesy and a helpful attitude from his staff.

Tom Bogdon can be contacted at


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