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Democrats Look for the Union Label

The nine presidential hopefuls make a labor pilgrimage to snare the backing of the AFL-CIO.

August 05, 2003|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Nine Democratic presidential contenders plan to converge on Chicago tonight to tout their solidarity with American workers at a time when organized labor is mobilizing to oust President Bush.

At least one of the nine, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, harbors some hope of winning an early endorsement from the nation's largest labor federation, the AFL-CIO -- a coveted but seldom-given credential that Al Gore secured four years ago on his way to winning the party's nomination. The candidates are to meet tonight with the AFL-CIO's executive council.

With 10 union endorsements already in hand, Gephardt is expected to snare the backing today of the United Steelworkers of America in Chicago, a source close to his campaign said. His rivals concede that Gephardt has far more support from union leaders than anyone else in the field.

But the AFL-CIO, representing about 13.5 million workers in 65 unions, remains uncommitted. The federation's leaders may put off a decision until October, one official said, or they may decide not to make any endorsement until the party has settled on a nominee.

Instead of coalescing behind a single candidate, many labor leaders are using their clout to press the Democratic field to hew to their views on key issues. On health care, for instance, they want more coverage for uninsured workers; on trade policy, more protection from overseas competition.

For the most part, the candidates are telling union leaders what they want to hear.

"Really, any one of the candidates on the Democratic side, as far as we can tell, would be a dramatic improvement" over the incumbent, said Karen Ackerman, the AFL-CIO's political director.

The Democratic pilgrimage to the Chicago meeting reflects the labor federation's enduring political muscle, even when union membership in the U.S., as a percentage of the workforce, has been in years of decline.

"Labor has shown an ability to turn out and influence union voters in national elections," said Harley Shaiken, a labor expert at UC Berkeley. "Overall it remains a very powerful actor, particularly on the Democratic side."

On Monday, several of the Democratic candidates sought to portray themselves as champions of labor.

In Iowa, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts spoke out in defense of overtime pay regulations in an event promoted by a local branch of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Kerry also trumpeted the endorsement of a local Chicago unit of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters -- which he received despite the national Teamsters endorsement of Gephardt last week.

In Oklahoma, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina spoke to the Transport Workers Union on airline workers' rights.

And in New York City, Gephardt continued to hit on union-favored themes in a speech to local business owners.

The first of Gephardt's five recommendations to boost the economy is an increase in the federal minimum wage, which has been $5.15 an hour since 1996. That is a long-standing priority for labor leaders. Gephardt also railed against international trade agreements that he said were forcing American jobs overseas.

"The next American job lost may not be in a textile mill in South Carolina, it might be your son's or daughter's," Gephardt said. He pledged to push international trade officials to establish minimum wages around the globe -- "different for each country, but always high enough so we don't compete with slave, sweat shop and child labor around the world."

Of the issues tracked by unions, trade is one that sharply divides the candidates.

Gephardt, a longtime Democratic leader in the House, opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, opposed legislation in 2000 to normalize trade relations with China and opposed various bills to grant Republican and Democratic presidents "fast-track" authority to negotiate trade deals with minimal congressional interference. He also told the AFL-CIO that, if elected president, he would "strongly oppose" the creation of a hemispheric zone known as the Free Trade Area of the Americas.

Of the other candidates who were in Congress in 1993, Sens. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Bob Graham of Florida and Kerry all supported NAFTA. So did former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, whose state borders Canada and has benefited from the pact.

Lieberman, Kerry and Graham voted last year for a fast-track trade bill, and Kerry and Graham voted in 2000 for the China trade bill. Lieberman backed the China trade bill as well but missed the final vote. Edwards supported China trade and an early version of the 2002 fast-track bill but voted against the final version.

Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio is a strong proponent of repealing NAFTA and opposes other trade bills as anti-labor. New York activist Al Sharpton holds similar views.

On the question of a hemispheric trade zone, opposed by the labor federation, Edwards, Kucinich and Sharpton joined Gephardt in outright opposition to such an agreement.

Lieberman has embraced the hemispheric trade zone as "very important for continued U.S. economic prosperity."

Dean said only that he would oppose "any trade agreement that does not require enforcement of international workers' rights." Kerry, also declining a direct answer, called for stronger enforcement of labor and environmental accords under NAFTA.

Neither Graham nor former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun returned an AFL-CIO questionnaire seeking their positions on issues important to labor, according to the federation's Web site ( 2004).

For all their emphasis on issues, union leaders also are focusing on the big picture: beating an incumbent they view as hostile to worker rights.

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