By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
Worse yet, Clinton had already sacrificed the Democrats on the altar of free trade once before. In 1994, infuriated by the administration’s successful campaign for NAFTA, normally Democratic voters in industrial states — and industrial unions — stayed away from the polls, contributing to the Republicans’ sweep of Congress. Now, just as the Democrats were poised to win Congress back, Clinton was doing it again. The leading trade-impacted unions — the Steelworkers, the Teamsters and the United Auto Workers (UAW) — were all vowing not to help any Democrats who voted with business. And even if the China deal assumed disproportionate significance only with these unions, and with the fair-trade and environmental activists on campuses — well, neither Gephardt nor Gore was in any position to pass up those votes.
In short, the president who once blunted such classic Republican wedge issues as crime and welfare has now driven a wedge of his own making right through his own party. As AFL-CIO president John Sweeney pointed out the day following the vote, Democrats are generally united on such issues as social security and health care, but the president had put the spotlight on the one issue where even a semblance of unity eluded them. “I am deeply angry,” Sweeney said, “that the president [whom] working families elected chose to divide progressive elected officials and their core constituencies . . .”
At Solidarity House, the Auto Workers’ Detroit headquarters, UAW president Steve Yokich was even angrier than Sweeney. The UAW and the Teamsters are the only two major AFL-CIO unions to have not yet endorsed Al Gore; they were angry about his support for the administration’s free-trade policies before the vote, and they are angrier now. “Vice President Gore is holding hands with the profiteers of the world and singing the praises of the U.S.-China WTO accession,” Yokich said in a statement released on the day before the vote. “That’s why we have no choice but to actively explore alternatives to the two major political parties. It’s time to forget about party labels and instead focus on supporting candidates, such as Ralph Nader, who will take a stand based on what is right, not what big money dictates.” A spokesperson for Teamsters president James P. Hoffa allowed as how the Teamsters, too, might do some shopping in the third-party aisle.
Shopping, of course, is not buying, and even if Yokich opts to go for Nader, there’s no guarantee he can bring along the UAW executive board. The trajectory of Teamsters politics is even less predictable than the UAW’s: Unlike other unions arrayed against the China deal, the Teamsters have rallied not just with Nader but with Pat Buchanan as well.
“I always thought the DLC would generate its own Ken Livingston, and Nader may be it,” Bill Carrick, one of the nation’s foremost Democratic consultants, told me last week — referring to the militant socialist mayor of London whom voters elected earlier this month in an act of undisguised rebellion against the rightward drift of Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair. “The DLC’s sense has always been, we need to lose some constituencies in order to win over the middle. Now, this may come back to haunt them.”
Outside the UAW and the Teamsters, labor leaders may be furious at Clinton, but are resolute in their support for Gore — for reasons, ultimately, that don’t have a lot to do with Gore at all. Both George W. Bush and GOP congressional leaders have made clear that their primary strategic political goal, should Bush take the White House, will be to bust the political power of unions — which, since John Sweeney took over the AFL-CIO in 1995, have become the Republicans’ most potent antagonists. “What this endorsement is about,” one former AFL-CIO official explained to me shortly after the Federation backed Gore last October, “is, ‘We’re in a world of shit if Bush wins.’”
Now, however, Gore faces the daunting prospect that he may have to campaign in Michigan without the support of the UAW. But even if he gets a halfhearted UAW endorsement, the cost that the China fight will extract from the Gore campaign in volunteers and enthusiasm throughout the industrial Midwest could still be high. Virtually every analysis of the November vote suggests that the presidential election will be decided in the region that runs from Jersey City to Kansas City, in seven swing states of the old industrial heartland: New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Missouri and Wisconsin. A look at the way the Democratic House members from these seven states voted last week on China suggests the depth of Gore’s dilemma. Whether because the pressure from the industrial unions in these states was particularly intense, or because public sentiment against the deal was particularly intense — or both — only four Democrats out of the 56 from these states voted for the China deal. Fifty-two Democrats voted against it — a ratio of 13-to-1 among the Democrats from the states that the vice president needs most. If Clinton’s wedge speared anyone, it seems to have been Al Gore.
Finally, a number of centrist commentators — from The New York Times’ Tom Friedman to the almost invariably thoughtful Matt Miller — have expressed exasperation with unions for continuing to fight this rear-guard action, and have proposed instead a kind of grand political deal. Globalization is here, they say. Give up this opposition to one trade treaty after another. Sit down with business and work out an understanding to enhance your position here at home. Concentrate instead on winning legislation guaranteeing better training and education here, on establishing a higher minimum wage or a living wage, on securing universal health insurance and shoring up social security.