Something odd — and refreshing — occurred in town this week: a political demonstration with real workers in it. Gathering in the harbor area‘s Banning Park, a small sea of unionized pipe fitters, carpenters, janitors, warehousers, teachers, a delegation of low riders, even members of the Library Guild, celebrated Labor Day over heaps of baked beans and hot dogs. And, for once, the usual flotsam of professional revolutionaries — those noisome sad sacks laden with leaflets and broadsheets who often dominate local demonstrations — were mercifully flushed way to the sidelines.
The unionists rallied to hear the national president of the AFL-CIO, John Sweeney, kick off what is to be a fall campaign against the ”fast track“ trade authority that Dubya wants Congress to grant him. Now, stay with me here for a minute. This is important stuff. Fast track would allow the president to negotiate international trade treaties and present them to Congress for expedited and simple yesno votes with no room for changes. This is the same lame thinking that gave us the 1994 NAFTA treaty, which has cost several hundred thousand Americans their jobs and eased the way for more sweatshops across the border.
Organized labor is pulling out the stops to block the granting of fast track in the coming weeks. The unions — worried about job loss, the erosion of environmental standards, and the further empowerment of multinational corporations — oppose Dubya’s plans for a sort of super-NAFTA that‘s called the Free Trade Area of the Americas. AFL-CIO chief Sweeney told the labor rally that he felt ”great“ because he was sure that labor and its allies would end up ”handing George W. Bush a big-time defeat of fast track.“
Well, that’s not exactly the case. The trade debate doesn‘t break down neatly on Democratic vs. Republican lines. It’s rather a matter of corporatists against populists, and, unfortunately, there‘s plenty of the former in both major political parties. So labor’s opponents are mightier than one dimwitted Texan at one end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Though it‘s Bush who’s pushing fast track, its fate right now rests in Democratic, not Republican, hands. ”Bush needs 35 to 40 Democratic votes in the House in order to get his majority,“ says Mike Dolan, deputy director of Public Citizen‘s Global Trade Watch. ”And in the end, the whole fight could hinge on a couple of Democratic members in the Los Angeles area.“
Enter Jane Harman and Adam Schiff. Two local Democrats sent to Congress last fall, in good measure with union support. And both of whom have yet to commit to opposing fast track. Harman’s no big surprise. In her previous stint in Congress — before her failed 1998 bid for governor — Harman proved to be a Defense Department Democrat, often melding her vote with the GOP.
Schiff, however, whose district flows east from Glendale, threatens to become a major disappointment to many of his core supporters. His predecessor was Republican Jim Rogan, a big duck on the Judiciary Committee who found himself targeted by Democrats for his vote to impeach Bill Clinton (in my view, about Rogan‘s only positive attribute!). Last year’s Rogan-Schiff contest was the most expensive House race in history — more than $11 million poured in on both sides.
”Labor elected Schiff,“ says a local union organizer. ”But now that we need him, he‘s weaseling around. We have met eyeball to eyeball with him and pressed him very hard, and he stares right back at us and refuses to say how he’s going to vote.“
Consider Schiff‘s labor debt. Apart from the $4.3 million in direct political contributions that labor helped bag for Schiff, unions spent hundreds of thousands more, shotgunning out 13 different direct-mail appeals on his behalf. Piles of union money — almost $70,000 — went to buy TV ads for the guy. At the height of last year’s campaign, 100 unionists gave up their weekend nights to phone-bank for him. Four to six times as many labor foot soldiers knocked door to door for him. Three-fourths of the district‘s 32,000 union voters punched the ballot for Schiff.
How does Schiff repay this blue-collar largess? Not only by waffling on fast track, but also by immediately enlisting in the Blue Dogs — the pro-business, conservative Democratic caucus that boasts other pedigreed kennel mates such as Gary Condit.
At the Labor Day rally, the union folks gathered at tables with signs asking, ”Have You Called Jane Yet?“ and ”Have You Called Adam Schiff Yet?“ Indeed, in the weeks to come, Harman and Schiff are bound to be deluged by lobbying calls and petitions and pleas.
Harman is likely a lost cause on the fast-track issue. But with Schiff, a massive, prolonged game of chicken is about to ensue. The unions will tell him every day that he must come around to oppose fast track or risk their anger and alienation. But like most Democrats, Schiff calculates that labor is bluffing and that, in the electoral crunch, the unions will always support him against a Republican; that, all momentary bluster aside, labor has nowhere else to go and is captive to the Democrats. Until now, that has been a safe bet. AFL-CIO president Sweeney told the Labor Day crowd that, as this congressional fight develops, labor should not flinch from using the ”most devastating weapon . . . the truth.“ Not much of a threat, really, given the standing view that Power generally has of Truth.
Much better if Sweeney had put Schiff on notice by saying something like: ”Punk out on us in the coming fast-track vote by siding with the Bush White House, and not only will we not support you next November, but we will sink you.“ Imagine the unions running a third-party or independent candidate against a recalcitrant Schiff. In his marginal swing district, drawing off even a few points would end his tenure. Yes, a Republican would probably be elected. But the tradeoff would be well worth it. The unions would never have to beg Adam Schiff for anything again. I can dream, can’t I?