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Democrats in All-Union Dress

The nine candidates show some sharp differences on trade issues in their bid for the AFL-CIO's support at a Chicago forum.

August 06, 2003|Eric Slater | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — In one of their most important forums to date, the nine Democratic presidential hopefuls gathered here Tuesday to pitch themselves to the nation's labor unions -- a force whose political power has faded in recent decades but whose support remains key to any Democrat's run for the White House.

The AFL-CIO's Working Families Presidential Forum focused exclusively on domestic issues, which helped to highlight the subtle differences among the candidates.

The Democrats criticized President Bush's tax cuts and economic policies for costing the jobs of millions of Americans, and vowed to defend unions against what they said were Bush administration attacks on collective organizing and overtime rules.

Before 2,000 rowdy, chanting union members gathered at the city's Navy Pier convention center, however, some of the office seekers came across sounding a bit like underpaid labor organizers.

Upon arriving late from the airport, the Rev. Al Sharpton quipped: "I had a non-union cab driver."

One of the key topics of the evening was trade agreements, which have undermined union power and sent jobs overseas.

Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio) challenged his rivals on the issue, saying, "This could be a very important debate because we have people on this stage who voted for NAFTA and voted for the WTO," the North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization, respectively. "My first act [as president] would be to cancel NAFTA and my second act would be to cancel the WTO."

Of the candidates who were in Congress for those votes, Sens. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and Bob Graham of Florida all voted for NAFTA.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean also supported the agreement, and his state, which borders Canada, has benefited.

The four candidates did not go for Kucinich's bait.

"The United States does not have the choice to become a protectionist nation," Graham said. "We are the leader of the world economy. Leading that economy carries with it certain responsibilities."

Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), who has long been labor's go-to man on trade issues, quickly returned to the anti-free trade theme by reminding the audience of his stalwart opposition to many free-trade agreements.

"I am the one who not only voted against but led the fight against NAFTA," he said to great cheers. "When I'm president, you won't have to worry about trade treaties that don't take care of labor rights, human rights and the environment."

Said Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina: "We can have free trade, but we need fair trade also."

The AFL-CIO, which represents 13.5 million workers in 65 unions, aired footage of union workers, Social Security recipients and others asking how the candidates would, if elected, handle such issues as health care, corporate reform, education and job creation. National Public Radio host Bob Edwards then asked each candidate a related question, with a 90-second answer period.

Sharpton pitched his plan for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing health care for all, while Kucinich and former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun argued for a single-payer, universal health coverage system. Dean pointed to Vermont's success with an expanded-coverage plan that helps about 96% of its neediest residents with their medical care.

Lieberman, pointing to the failed effort of President Clinton to develop a universal health plan, promoted a "step-by-step improvement plan" with a reformed system that would allow those who have health benefits, but lose their jobs, to be able to afford continued coverage.

Kerry argued for "a bigger, bolder plan than the one Joe just proposed," which would be funded in part by rescinding some of Bush's tax cuts.

Gephardt had the most to gain, or lose, at the forum -- which was watched on television by thousands at union halls across the country -- and he received by far the loudest applause from the Chicago audience when his name was announced.

Long considered by labor one of its key congressional allies, the former House minority leader has all but staked his languishing candidacy on union support as he has struggled to raise funds and rebut a sense that his time came and went in the last presidential election.

Gephardt has an early but substantial lead in securing union endorsements. He received the backing of the United Steel Workers of America on Tuesday and the powerful Teamsters Union last week, bringing the total number of his union endorsements to 11.

Support from the Teamsters, especially -- which has 1.4 million members -- has given a boost to Gephardt, both because his campaign appeared in need of public affirmation and because the Teamsters have previously supported Republican candidates, including George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon.

With nine candidates at the forum, each having just 90 seconds to answer a question, the gathering was not a debate and offered no real winners or losers.

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