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Gore's China Trade Stance Gambles With Union Support

May 24, 2000|MARK Z. BARABAK | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

PITTSBURGH — Vice President Al Gore told a skeptical union audience Tuesday that he remains committed to the U.S-China trade deal, even after losing the support of a potential labor ally.

"I just want to tell you forthrightly: I don't share your views on this particular issue," Gore said over scattered catcalls from members of the Service Employees International Union, gathered in Pittsburgh for their annual convention. "I believe that free and fair trade can create good, high-paying jobs for American workers . . . . I believe it's right for America's economy and right for the cause of reform in China."

Gore's comments came on a day devoted to a mix of foreign policy and domestic politics; earlier, he addressed a Jewish audience and defended the Clinton administration's handling of the Middle East peace process.

The vice president's trade sentiments were hardly new. But the timing was politically significant, coming just hours after the head of the United Auto Workers union said the organization would "explore alternatives" to the two major party presidential candidates--including a possible endorsement of the Green Party's Ralph Nader.

"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," said UAW President Stephen P. Yokich. "Supporting those who support us is our political agenda, not just a slogan."

Nader expressed pleasant surprise at Yokich's comments. "I think you're going to see increasing reluctance for organized labor to be told by the Democrats they've got nowhere to go and they've got to swallow policies that are against the core of the union's reason for being," he told the Reuters news agency.

A UAW endorsement of Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the presumptive Republican nominee and a supporter of the China trade deal, was never likely. Instead, Tuesday's dissenting statement reflected the tensions Gore faces trying to reconcile his support for free-trade policies with the strong opposition of his Democratic friends in organized labor.

Gore's efforts to finesse the issue were evident in Pittsburgh, where he drew a foot-stomping response as he roared out support for such union priorities as higher wages, stricter worker-safety standards and a federal law banning replacement of striking workers.

In contrast, a leaden silence fell over the convention hall as Gore gave a brief, hurried defense of his trade stand. "I know you disagree," he said, tersely. "And I respect your disagreement."

Despite their differences, Gore continues to enjoy the endorsement of the AFL-CIO and United Steelworkers of America, which were crucial to his capturing the Democratic nomination. The SEIU is the largest member of the AFL-CIO.

In contrast, the UAW has stayed neutral throughout the campaign, along with the Teamsters union.

Speaking to reporters during a brief stop at a downtown Pittsburgh construction site, Gore minimized the UAW's announcement, saying, "This is awfully early in the process," and pointing out that he agrees with organized labor on "nine out of 10 issues."

Earlier Tuesday, in Washington, Gore pledged his unwavering dedication to America's "special relationship" with Israel and vowed as president to ensure the country's continued military superiority over its Mideast neighbors.

He also took a swipe at former presidents Bush and Reagan, a day after Bush's son criticized the Clinton administration in a speech to the same lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

"Unlike our immediate predecessors, we chose to get intimately involved" in the Middle East peace process, Gore said. "But we also established a firm new rule, and we have followed this rule faithfully: that we must not and would not in any way try to pressure Israel to agree to measures that they themselves would not seek."

"I will never ever let people forget that the relationship between the United States and Israel rests on granite," the vice president went on, drawing one of several ovations from the crowd of more than 2,000 AIPAC members. ". . . I will never forget that Israel's security rests on Israel's superiority in arms."

On Monday, Bush accused the Clinton administration of undercutting Israel by forcing its negotiators to abide by America's "plans and timetables" in talks with the country's Arab and Palestinian neighbors.

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