Al Gore had good reason to swing by New Orleans last week to shower thanks on leaders of America‘s labor unions, who were attending the winter meeting of the AFL-CIO executive council. When labor-federation president John Sweeney leaned on his colleagues to give Gore an early endorsement last October in Los Angeles, the vice president’s campaign was floundering. Now his nomination once again is viewed as hard to stop, and he owes much of his success to organized labor‘s efforts in Iowa and New Hampshire.

The New Orleans meeting may have given Gore a new reason to cheer — and something big to worry about as well. The unions officially adopted a new policy on immigration, calling for an end to Immigration and Naturalization Service actions to identify illegal immigrants at the workplace as well as an amnesty for an estimated 6 million undocumented workers now in the country. Unions calculate, based in large part on experience in California, that the formal policy shift could ultimately attract more Latinos and other immigrants into the ranks of both unions and the Democratic Party, but it could also provide a small boost even for this election.

But the unions’ strong post-Seattle commitment to an expanded campaign against corporate globalization — including a major effort to block approval of Clinton‘s proposed ”permanent normal trading relationship“ (NTR) with China — runs the risk of highlighting a profound conflict between labor and the Clinton-Gore administration on issues of trade and the global economy.

That could prompt some normally Democratic working-class voters in key states of the industrial Midwest and California to stay home on Election Day, much as the United Auto Workers and the Teamsters have still not embraced Gore, largely out of disagreement on global economics.

Organized labor deluged its members in New Hampshire with literature and videos as organizers knocked on 5,000 doors, identified Gore supporters and got them to the polls. The state’s biggest union, the Service Employees (SEIU), mobilized ”Barney“ — its purple truck which serves as a mobile, high-tech phone bank that union volunteers operate. As a result, 24 percent of all voters came from union households, up by a third from the 1992 primary, and those voters favored Gore by 62 percent to 37 percent — while voters from nonunion households went narrowly for Bill Bradley, 50 percent to 49 percent. In Iowa a formidably disproportionate share of Democratic caucus-goers — 33 percent — were from union households, and they voted by a 4-1 margin for Gore, mainly because of the union endorsement, according to surveys.

Both union and party leaders were ready to give labor credit. ”The endorsement was more important than [Gore] or John Sweeney understood,“ SEIU president Andrew Stern said. ”It gave him a sense of confidence — and his campaign has improved.“ Michigan Representative David Bonior, the Democratic whip and one of labor‘s closest allies in the House, observed, ”When [the unions] participate politically, it makes a hell of a difference . . . We want to keep that enthusiasm alive. We would not be where we are — within reach of a majority — if it were not for the efforts of unions and working people.“ Unions are gearing up for Super Tuesday primaries and beyond, promoting their own members for office, building a campaign network that keeps working after the election, and independently airing television ads against vulnerable opponents on issues such as prescription-drug coverage under Medicare, increasing the minimum wage, and using the budget surplus for Social Security and school construction and renovation rather than tax cuts. While Stern admitted that John McCain appeals to some of his members, he — like most union leaders who did not acknowledge McCain’s attraction — remained convinced that members would ultimately reject a politician who has so often voted against worker and union interests.

Although the AFL-CIO expects to spend $40 million over two years on what Sweeney called ”the broadest and most intensive [political] program we have ever conducted,“ and individual unions will spend more, research by the Center for Responsive Politics suggests that business interests will outspend labor 11-1. But ”the strength of the labor movement is to activate and mobilize union members,“ argued AFL-CIO political director Steve Rosenthal. In 1998, he said, union members voted for the labor-endorsed congressional candidate by a margin of 76 percent to 18 percent if they were given a flier at work, by 67 percent to 23 percent if they got only direct mail, and by 58 percent to 27 percent if their union didn‘t communicate at all on politics. But only 6 percent of members had a personal contact at work.

In the long run, in politics, the message counts, not just the medium or the messenger. The new labor policy on immigration, for example, could be a potent political message. ”The labor movement has a very strong self-interest in making it absolutely clear to the immigrant community that we’re on their side,“ argued Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees union president John Wilhelm, whose union has successfully organized tens of thousands of new immigrants in recent years. In California, he said, ”Allegedly pro-worker candidates took over because of the Latino vote, when labor and the Democrats made it clear what side they were on,“ especially after Republican initiatives penalizing immigrants. Now, he said, polls indicate Latinos heavily favor Gore in California, but they support Bush elsewhere in the country.

Unions don‘t expect action in this Congress, but they want reforms that can lessen workers’ fears of employer attacks and deportation threats, since they see immigrants as often anxious to join unions. It‘s a big change from 1986, when the AFL-CIO supported a law that provided penalties for employers who hired illegal immigrants. Over the years, union organizers concluded that the law did not stem illegal immigration, punished immigrants — legal and illegal — more than employers, and gave employers more power to exploit immigrants.

When it comes to the big issues of the global economy, the terrain gets more slippery. In the aftermath of the Seattle World Trade Organization protests, unions have decided to mount a major multiyear Campaign for Global Fairness. From a few industrial unions calling for fair trade, labor has evolved to demanding fair rules for the global economy — protection of labor rights and the environment. Now unions will be taking up the fight for global fairness by strengthening their international solidarity work and seeking debt relief, effective foreign aid, and policies that emphasize human needs and balanced economic growth in poor countries, not governmental austerity and exports at any price.

Clinton, on the other hand, has made passage of permanent NTR one of his main goals for his final year. Gore, caught in a bind, has tried to fudge the issue, and some labor leaders — anxious to avoid a worker backlash as there was after Clinton and Gore pushed through NAFTA — have joined the effort. The result was a flurry of confusing and contradictory headlines from New Orleans suggesting that Gore had broken with Clinton on China, but when business groups pressed for clarification, Gore finally acknowledged he was sticking with the president. Labor leaders hope a President Gore would be different, since he has pledged to make labor and environmental protection part of all new global economic agreements. But Clinton made a similar pledge on NAFTA while campaigning eight years ago, and he continues to give stirring speeches supporting labor and environmental rights — all the while pushing a deal with China and new trade agreements with Africa and the Caribbean that, like past Clinton deals, do nothing for labor rights or the environment.

The effort and money labor is putting into fighting the administration on China could be going to the campaigns of Gore and other Democrats, but the real danger for Gore would come if labor loses its battle and embittered workers stay home. This is not just another vote to union leaders, even to those from unions less directly affected by trade. It’s about the future of the economy and democracy in this country. Asked what most affected him about Seattle, Steelworkers president George Becker paused and then answered with a clearly anguished tone, ”I saw how fragile our freedoms are. I saw how with just one different command we could have been like China at Tian An Men Square.“ When experiences and convictions run so deep, labor‘s battle over China — a proxy for the bigger fight over the global economy — could threaten the future of the candidate whose campaign unions have already saved. It’s a clear indication of just how serious they are about changing those global rules.

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