After the House passed President Clinton’s China trade bill, Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer, issued a threat: “The 163 Republicans and 73 Democrats that voted for China trade yesterday are going to pay a price.” At the same time, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney declared that the threat did not extend to one prominent supporter of the legislation, Al Gore: “The Vice President is not the President, and this was clearly the President’s bill.” Sweeney attacked the “Clinton-DeLay” forces that fought for the measure and left Gore out of the picture. Talk about mixed signals. Organized labor is going to impose payback on Democratic lawmakers, but not on Gore?
Actually, it’s unlikely that the AFL-CIO will punish the errant Democrats–especially when the union hopes to help them regain control of the House. In labor circles there is anger at these Democratic legislators, particularly Charlie Rangel (who derided labor’s lobbying campaign against the bill) and Sander Levin (whose proposal for a human rights commission on China was instrumental in the bill’s passage) as well as Tom Sawyer, Lois Capps, Dennis Moore and Diana DeGette (who voted for it despite union assistance to their campaigns). But at a meeting of union political directors, several wanted to put off a confrontation until after the election. And since the AFL-CIO endorsed Gore last year, it’s hardly in a position to dump him now for being a loyal member of an Administration that kicked the unions in the teeth. So for some labor politicos, on the matter of the China vote, it’s time to move on. In a two-party system, where choices are limited, such compromises often seem unavoidable.
But frustration is brewing. The most notable eruption was the May 23 statement of United Auto Workers president Stephen Yokich, in which he blasted Clinton and Gore. “One moment,” he fumed, “presidential candidate Gore is telling the labor movement that he believes human rights, workers’ rights and environmental protections should be included in core trade agreements; the next, Vice President Gore is holding hands with the profiteers of the world and singing the praises” of the China deal. So it’s time to look beyond the two major parties, said Yokich. He raised the possibility of supporting Ralph Nader, “who will take a stand based on what is right, not what big money dictates.” Yokich’s declaration sent tremors across the Democratic-labor landscape. The Gore campaign, which knew in advance that the statement was coming, asked House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt and Democratic whip David Bonior to keep Yokich from sounding off. Yokich ignored their importunings.
It’s hard to envision the UAW–which, like the Teamsters, abstained from the AFL-CIO endorsement of Gore–backing Nader, a Green with whom they disagree on issues like global warming and fuel-efficiency standards. But Yokich went further than most labor leaders by publicly airing his frustration with the political duopoly. The Teamsters’ James Hoffa followed suit a week later, saying his union may not endorse any presidential candidate. Hoffa announced that his executive board would talk with Ralph Nader and George W. Bush. Hoffa has also met with Pat Buchanan. His union did yank its endorsement of Capps and Moore.
“Are we labor leaders or Democrats first?” asks Chuck Harpel, the Teamsters’ political director. “If we keep throwing money at the Democratic Party and are constantly disappointed on the big vote, we might as well fold. Is Nader the answer? I don’t know. But our members want to look at people other than Gore. They’re saying to us, We can’t trust the corporate world, and we can’t trust the Democratic Party.”
Although most of labor will stick with Gore and the Democrats (after all, a majority of the Democrats opposed the China bill), labor leaders know that the China deal has made selling Democrats tougher. “There will be less enthusiasm for Democrats among our members, and it will be much more difficult to motivate them,” says a senior union official. The AFL-CIO has vowed to conduct the largest get-out-the-vote drive in its history. But after Sweeney turned the China bill into a life-or-death struggle and pumped up his members about it, revving them up again for Gore won’t be easy (and Gore may well need every labor vote possible to win in such industrial swing states as Michigan, Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania). Labor voters’ enthusiasm for Gore and the Democrats may also be affected by Gore’s choice of running mate. (Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, for example, has never been a union favorite.) Officials at the Teamsters and the UAW say that both unions might still end up backing Gore. But Yokich’s statement, one UAW official remarks, “reflects what our activists feel. They are the ones expected to pound on doors. They have to have a belief that the guy they’re working for will come through for them on big issues. There is substantial disillusionment.”
In a two-horse system, you’re often forced to ride the one that will buck you the least. A few labor leaders are looking for (or flirting with) a better mount. “None of us really know where Yokich and Hoffa will, or can, go,” says a top official at another union. “I can see them saying, ‘Fuck ’em all’ and telling members to sit it out–and we end up with Bush. We’re really stuck. Everyone knew we would be, and we are.”