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White House Denies Attempt to Link Auto Industry Bailout to Colombia Pact

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The Bush administration is denying reports it wants to link aid to the auto industry to Democratic support for a free trade pact with Colombia. Democratic lawmakers, meanwhile, are preparing to push for emergency legislation to help the automakers during the lame-duck session of Congress next week. We speak to Mark Brenner of Labor Notes and Hofstra University professor and journalist Mario Murillo here in New York. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The White House has rejected reports that President Bush tried Monday during his meeting with President-elect Obama to link aid to the auto industry to Democratic support for a free trade pact with Colombia. White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said Tuesday that the President did not suggest a “quid pro quo,” even though he does support free trade with Colombia.

John Podesta, the co-chair of Obama’s transition team, also denied that President Bush had offered Colombia as part of a deal to bail out the auto industry. He told reporters Tuesday that “the President didn’t try to link Colombia to the question of an economic recovery package going forward.”

Democratic lawmakers, meanwhile, are preparing to push for emergency legislation to help the automakers during the lame-duck session of Congress next week. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that she had asked Congressman Barney Frank to begin drafting legislation to use part of the $700 billion bailout to assist the auto industry. General Motors shares fell to their lowest point Tuesday since 1943.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by two guests. Mark Brenner is with us. He’s the director of Labor Notes, the largest circulation cross-union national publication in the country. He joins us here in our firehouse studio. We’re also joined via DN! video stream from Colombia by Mario Murillo, professor of communications at Hofstra University and producer at Pacifica radio station WBAI here in New York. He’s author of Colombia and the United States: War, Terrorism and Destabilization, currently living in Colombia and blogging at mamaradio.blogspot.com.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Mark Brenner, first, talk about the possible bailout of the auto industry. Who’s for it? Who’s against it? Who gains?

MARK BRENNER: Well, look, Michigan’s lost over 350,000 manufacturing jobs in the last eight years, most of them in the last three years. Unemployment has already hit ten percent in Flint; it’s nine percent statewide. There’s no question that the impact of the freefall of the auto industry has really decimated, and it’s going to continue to decimate, the state and the region.

So, you know, from my perspective and I think from most of the perspective of the labor movement and hopefully the whole progressive community, there’s no question that something needs to be done. The question is, what do we do? And I think, here, we really need a game changer. We can’t approach this piecemeal. We’ve learned both from the bailout of the airline industry post-9/11 and the recent bailout of the banking industry that — what not to do. You know, handing money to the people that got us in this mess is really not the solution. So, hopefully, you know, the labor movement is going to approach it this way and not look to Washington to solve their problems.

You know, we really need to think about what it could be that would get us out of this mess, a comprehensive approach to transportation policy, really figuring out what role the factories in the Midwest that are currently producing, you know, oil-based automobiles play in that. Is there a way to kind of move them out of that mode of production and put them into some other, you know, more fuel-efficient, more energy and environmentally friendly production scheme? And how does that fit into the spectrum of transportation? There’s no question that all this should be on the table now. What scares me is that that’s not the approach that we’re taking, that’s not what’s being debated in Washington. And I think that this should be sending red flags to everyone in the labor movement and the progressive community nationwide.

JUAN GONZALEZ: It does seem, though, that whenever talk of a bailout does develop, there will be a question of the merging of some of these auto companies. So you’re going to have fewer auto companies in the United States when the whole thing is over.

MARK BRENNER: Right. I think that’s probably true. And, you know, look, these are the people that got us into this huge mess, and unfortunately, the unionists followed them lockstep for over forty years, whenever it came to environmental standards, whenever it came to the kind of innovation that would actually have put them in a much better position to, you know, weather the current economic climate. So I think we do have to, you know, not look to Detroit, either, and to the Big Three for the solutions here.

What really is scary to me is the adjustments that we’ve seen historically and just in recent times, they look like IMF structural adjustment programs. Basically, all of the adjustment falls on the shoulders of working people and none on the people that actually got us into the mess. And that formula, we’ve got to change.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And is there a danger, if one of these companies, General Motors or Chrysler, goes bankrupt, of the pension funds of the workers then being up for grabs?

MARK BRENNER: Oh, absolutely. Last year, that was probably the biggest news out of the GM negotiations and the Chrysler negotiations first, and then Ford later: the establishment of a voluntary employment benefit association. It’s a VEBA, is what it’s known in the industry. It’s essentially a pension fund that the union runs. It’s a total transition from the way that it was historically, where the company guaranteed the pensions.

And so, now what you’ve got is you’ve got a partially funded retirement plan and retiree healthcare plan that the union is supposed to manage starting next year. However, you know, the money is not all there. And where is it going to come from? They’re hemorrhaging cash, and it seems to me that that’s the first place that the industry is going to point to the government to aid them. $25 billion is what they’re asking for, for that alone.

AMY GOODMAN: Mark Brenner, people have, for years, been going to foreign cars, because they’re looking for smaller, more efficient environmental cars and, of course, more economical. Why hasn’t the US auto industry responded?

MARK BRENNER: Well, I mean, why do people do things for profit? I mean, that’s the real question here. They found a niche with minivans and then later with SUVs. And when gas prices were a dollar a gallon, that formula seemed to work. Unfortunately, you know, as you sort of indicate, this was not a far-range vision. This was not something that actually would have helped position them for the twenty-first century. And so, now we’re stuck in a position where the taxpayers are going to have to actually play some role in that transition. I just hope that we do it in a visionary, comprehensive way, because piecemeal doesn’t work.

JUAN GONZALEZ: There’s also — General Motors, as I understand it, they have a financing arm, GMAC, which is now trying to convert itself into a bank in order to be able to access the $700 billion bailout. From your perspective, is this a positive step or not?

MARK BRENNER: Well, I think it’s — I look at it as a negative, because it keeps us within the sort of framework that we’re in right now, which is the way that the money has been given away with no strings attached, with no accountability, with actually no say. Can you imagine becoming a shareholder in an organization without actually having a voice, without having a vote? That’s exactly what the federal government did in the banking industry, and that’s what they seem poised to do in the auto industry. It makes no sense whatsoever.

AMY GOODMAN: Alright, let’s talk about the allegations that are swirling about, that President Bush said a kind of quid pro quo. He’s against the bailout of the auto industry, but he’s going to do it if the Democrats will support the Colombia so-called free trade deal.

MARK BRENNER: Right. That’s the rumor that was, as you reported, denied by the White House. But I honestly just scratched my head when I heard this news, because it seemed to me like the one thing that Barack Obama mentions in the debate that seems remotely labor-related is what’s happening to unionists and other labor activists in Colombia, being murdered, and the concern around that and whether we would sign a free trade agreement with the country, and then, here we are, the one thing that he seems to want to tie the auto industry to. It felt like he was giving Obama the finger.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Mario Murillo, you’re in Colombia. The reaction there to this question of Colombia coming up in the first meeting between President-elect Obama and President Bush?

MARIO MURILLO: Well, as you would imagine, any time anything is mentioned in US press about Colombia, it becomes front-page headlines and the biggest talk of the radio shows in the morning here in Colombia, so naturally it’s getting a lot of attention.

I should point out one thing that’s ironic, because if President Bush did indeed do this, make a link between the free trade agreement in Colombia and a bailout of the auto industry, in doing so, he would inevitably also be alienating another sector in the Colombian trade union movement and also in small industry, who oppose the free trade agreement between Colombia and the United States, particularly the small parts and auto parts industry here in Colombia, which happens to be the leader in the entire region in producing auto parts, replacement parts for both US, European and Asian cars. So, that would not be gaining much favor here in Colombia, if they’re trying to save the US auto industry while at the same time flood the Colombian market with these products from the United States that would inevitably come with the US FTA.

There is major concern. Obviously, the election of Barack Obama on Tuesday has been getting mixed reactions from the people, from the trade union movement, from the indigenous movement, the popular movement. They welcome it, but obviously supporters of Uribe were kind of backpedaling a bit, because during the campaign, although they claim now that they weren’t supportive of John McCain and Sarah Palin, there’s no doubt that that’s who they were crossing their fingers to win would have won last week. And because of the strong arguments and strong position that Barack Obama has taken vis-à-vis the human rights violations against trade unionists here in Colombia, there is a considerable hope that there’s going to be at least a renegotiation, if not a complete shelving of the US-Colombia free trade deal. So that — they’re still waiting to see what happens, but certainly, that it’s being discussed in Washington right now is getting a lot of attention here in Colombia.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to the final presidential debate, when Obama discussed why he was opposed to the free trade agreement with Colombia.

    SEN. BARACK OBAMA: The history in Colombia right now is that labor leaders have been targeted for assassination on a fairly consistent basis, and there have not been prosecutions. And what I have said, because the free trade — the trade agreement itself does have labor and environmental protections, but we have to stand for human rights, and we have to make sure that violence isn’t being perpetrated against workers who are just trying to organize for their rights, which is why, for example, I supported the Peruvian Free Trade Agreement, which was a well-structured agreement.

AMY GOODMAN: Mario, your response to – well, then it was the presidential nominee, now the President-elect, Barack Obama, explaining both why he supports Colombia free trade — opposes it and supports Peru?

MARIO MURILLO: Well, it’s interesting. A lot of people welcome that, a lot of people here in Colombia, when they heard Barack Obama say that. And obviously the fact that Colombia was mentioned in the last presidential debate, it was welcomed here, particularly from the trade union movement and the popular movement.

President Uribe, the best friend in the hemisphere of President Bush, immediately tried to counterbalance that by saying, “Well, we’ve done a lot to improve the conditions here for trade unionists.” The fact of the matter is that in 2008 alone, forty-one trade unionists have been killed. Since Uribe took office six years ago, 454 trade unionists have been killed. Last year, thirty-nine were killed, which was more than any — all the other countries in the world combined. So, if these are improvements, certainly there’s still a long way to go, and Barack Obama certainly pointed that out.

The concern that some people have here, and it comes in the context of what’s happening on a national scale right now, massive mobilization of indigenous peasants, Afro-Colombian, the women’s movement, student groups, and of course the trade union movement, as well, are mobilizing, and it started over a month ago on October 11th, and they’re marching all the way from Cali and different parts of the country, they’ll be arriving in Bogota, the capital, next week. And they’re calling attention to not only the question of the trade union movement being targeted under the Uribe administration, thereby negating the idea of a US free trade agreement with Colombia, but they’re also talking — pointing to the fact that 1,200 indigenous activists have been killed over the six years since Uribe has been in office, over 400,000 indigenous communities have been displaced, and there’s a whole litany of human rights concerns, the most recent being the controversy around the false positives, the murder of innocent civilians taken out of poor neighborhoods in different parts of Colombia, executed on the spot by Colombian army officers and then dressed up as guerrillas and presented as if they were combat deaths, to show that they’re making progress in the war against, quote-unquote, “terrorism.” This is finally becoming public, and it’s a major scandal here in Colombia.

And I think what human rights activists, the trade union movement, the progressive sectors here in Colombia are hoping will happen is that Barack Obama will begin to talk about those issues, as well, not simply hinging it on the disastrous record against trade union activists here in Colombia.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Mark Brenner, your response to the whole issue, from labor’s perspective, of these free trade agreements with Colombia and other Latin American countries? There was concern during the presidential race, especially during the primaries, as to how strongly Barack Obama would press for changes in these free trade agreements.

MARK BRENNER: Well, I think everybody needs to be worried about what an Obama administration is going to do around free trade. We saw this with the Clinton administration. They became the biggest partisans of free trade out there, passing NAFTA and bringing us a host of other bilateral agreements. I think that we need to keep the pressure on to actually make sure that we get what we need in the way of economic international rules of the game that can work for workers both here and in countries like Colombia. No question.

AMY GOODMAN: Mario, before you go, I did want to ask you overall about the reaction in Colombia on Tuesday night to the election of Barack Obama.

MARIO MURILLO: The reaction was very positive. I was actually in southern Colombia in Cauca, actually accompanying the indigenous community that they were starting their march up to Bogota. And we were watching the returns. And the people were amazed at seeing the victory of Barack Obama. They’re not naive to think that it’s going to be a complete transformation, in terms of relations between Colombia and the United States, but there is a sense of hope.

One of the things that was raised, and I should draw attention to the viewers and listeners of Democracy Now!, is a concern about the potential Attorney General choice. There’s been talk about a close ally and friend of Obama as a potential Attorney General for the United States, Eric Holder, who is currently defending Chiquita Brands International in its defense against dozens of plaintiffs here in Colombia, working families who were targeted by paramilitaries who were funded to the tune of $1.7 million over the last several years. It’s a major scandal. And if this guy becomes the Attorney General under an Obama administration, then it’s going to be really hard to find justice in this case coming from the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Mark Brenner, I wanted to ask you about a new report out from Public Citizen. It says trade issues played unprecedented nationwide role in congressional presidential races, reinforcing public demand for new globalization rules. And the figures that they use here are very interesting. From the presidency to the House to the Senate, it says that more than — at least thirty fair trade supporters, according to this new report, have — both houses have increased by more than thirty seats, who are opposed to free trade for — so-called free trade, for fair trade.

MARK BRENNER: Well, I mean, this has been an issue that’s been — the paradox has been there forever, that most people are absolutely sick and tired of the kinds of economic regime they live under with free trade, and they want their politicians to act accordingly. But that’s not been what people have done in Washington. And I don’t — you know, this is a hopeful sign, the report you cite, but there’s no guarantee there unless people are actually able to hold their elected officials accountable, and that’s the missing piece in all of this, is how we actually move to do that under this new administration.

AMY GOODMAN: To be exact, as I go through this report, it says a total of thirty-three new fair traders won seats in the House of Representatives, which represents a net change of twenty-six. Four new fair trade supporters won Senate seats, a net change of four.

MARK BRENNER: Encouraging.

AMY GOODMAN: Final word on the auto bailout, how you see this playing out right now, how you see it going to happen?

MARK BRENNER: Well, if I get the last word on that, the thing I’ve got to mention is healthcare, because, look, GM spends over $5 billion a year on healthcare. They’re responsible for over a million people’s healthcare, both currently and then eventually through the VEBA that they will fund. That’s where, it seems to me, we’ve got to be sort of pointing our fire and sort of looking for solutions, because, no surprise, the auto industry is not talking about a national health insurance plan or anything like the kind of nationalization of the healthcare in the auto industry that we saw after 9/11 for rescue workers here in New York and other examples like that. So it seems to me that’s got to be one of the places where labor focuses first and foremost and where hopefully other activists around the country are also turning.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. Mario — in Colombia, Mario Murillo, professor of communications at Hofstra University, author of the book Colombia and the United States: War, Terrorism and Destabilization. And Mark Brenner, director of Labor Notes, the largest circulation cross-union national publication in the country.

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