Teamsters Threaten to Withhold Support Over Free Trade Vote

Teamsters President James P. Hoffa (search) is threatening to withhold his union's financial and grass-roots support from congressional Democrats who back free trade agreements this week with Chile and Singapore.

"You are either with us or against us," Hoffa said Tuesday on Capitol Hill. "You are either with the American worker or against the American worker. These agreements leave no room in the middle."

The agreements, which will be voted on Wednesday in the House, would add Chile and Singapore to a select group of nations that have freets stretching around the world.

"I believe strongly that free trade (search) will create jobs and save Americans money," Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said Tuesday.

Both agreements are expected to pass the House and Senate with far less opposition than the bitter battle that erupted over the pact with Mexico a decade ago.

The Teamsters and many other unions are vitriolically opposed to trade deals, which have eviscerated their membership. About 3 million U.S. jobs have been lost between 1994 -- when the North American Free Trade Agreement (search) was implemented -- and 2000, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal, labor-supported think tank.

Unions, however, haven't had much success in thwarting trade votes in Congress. President Bush won fast track authority last year, which allows the president to negotiate trade pacts that cannot be amended by Congress.

The Chile and Singapore deals are relatively small. Singapore ranked 16th with $14.8 billion in products shipped to the United States last year, while U.S. imports from Chile were even smaller at $3.8 billion, ranking it 36th.

Organized labor views those votes as tests for a much larger target: a Free Trade Area of the Americas that would cover 34 nations in the Western Hemisphere.

"This is a wake up call for both Democrats and Republicans who say they are with labor," Hoffa said. "Today I tell them, if you want to call yourself a friend of labor, you'd better start acting like a friend of labor."

The Teamsters have one of the largest political action committees, giving $2.4 million to candidates in the 2002 elections.