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Trade Fights | The Nation

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Trade Fights

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There aren't many Democratic Congressional candidates who can claim that they personally thwarted the agenda of organized labor in the most critical legislative battles of the past decade, but former Clinton White House aide Rahm Emanuel can--and does. Northwestern University, where Emanuel has served as an adjunct professor of communications studies, identifies him as the man who "coordinated the passage of NAFTA." In addition to getting the North American Free Trade Agreement "ball across the goal line," as Emanuel likes to put it, Clinton's former senior adviser for policy and strategy was also a point man for the Administration in fights with unions over granting China most-favored-nation trading status and over fast-track negotiation of a hemispheric free-trade-area agreement that union leaders call "NAFTA on steroids."

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John Nichols
John Nichols
John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated...

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That résumé might not sound like one that would be a magnet for labor support. Yet, as the millionaire investment banker seeks the Democratic nomination for an open Congressional seat representing blue-collar Chicago neighborhoods hard hit by the loss of industrial jobs, Emanuel is running with the endorsement of the Illinois AFL-CIO. Weirder still is the fact that Emanuel's opponent in the close struggle to win the March 19 primary, former State Representative Nancy Kaszak, is a lifelong backer of union causes who speaks with passion about the devastation wreaked on Illinois by more than 37,000 lost jobs directly linked to the passage of NAFTA.

What gives? The national AFL-CIO defers to state federations on local endorsements. And Illinois AFL-CIO spokesman Bill Looby offers a realpolitik explanation of his federation's stance in the Kaszak-Emanuel race: "She had the good labor record, but he had the record of knowing his way around Washington. The feeling was, he could be more effective in Washington." Illinois politicos argue, however, that the federation's endorsement resulted more from the machinations of the Daley political machine, for which Emanuel has been a fundraiser, strategist and well-connected ally.

Emanuel is just one of a number of Democrats who, despite playing premiere roles in pushing a trade agenda that AFL-CIO president John Sweeney has referred to as "an assault on American workers, their families and their communities," enjoy AFL-CIO support in tight primary contests with Democrats who oppose unrestricted free trade. As in the 2000 presidential race, when the national federation went all out for Al Gore--who had consistently opposed it on trade issues--several state and local federations this year have made endorsements that are causing a lot of head-scratching among union members who embrace the "fair trade, not free trade" line.

In Texas, for instance, Representative Ken Bentsen, a Houston Democrat who helped the Bush White House secure its one-vote victory in December for fast track, won a dual endorsement just weeks later for an open US Senate seat--even though the man he shares the endorsement with, former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, clearly positioned himself on the opposite side of the issue. And divided labor loyalties in a freshly drawn Ohio Congressional district may well allow Representative Tom Sawyer, a frequent supporter of free-trade initiatives, to prevail over Ohio legislators with strong pro-labor records in a race to represent Youngstown and other steel-mill communities ravaged by the opening of US borders to cheap foreign steel.

When it's losing key Congressional battles over trade by a single vote, can labor really afford to send more Wall Street, not Main Street, Democrats to Congress? Paul Waterhouse, a top official with Teamsters Local 705 in Chicago, doesn't think so. "Unions begin to lose faith with their members when you tell them year after year after year that trade is the central issue and then at election time say never mind," says Waterhouse, whose 21,000-member local is backing Kaszak over Emanuel. Trade was a critical issue in convincing the Teamsters, the Machinists and a number of other blue-collar unions to break ranks with the state labor federation and endorse Kaszak. Indeed, to the extent that there is union "street heat" working the district, it appears mostly to be for Kaszak, who is described by Chicago Sun-Times columnist Steve Neal as having a record as "a genuine populist and community activist" that contrasts with Emanuel's "dubious claim that he has spent his life fighting for working families."

Intriguingly, the group that has placed an estimated $400,000 in advertisements on Chicago television complaining about Emanuel's support of NAFTA is not the labor federation that led opposition to the trade deal. It is EMILY's List, the national donors' network that backs pro-choice women candidates. EMILY's List was looking for an issue that would allow it to clearly distinguish Kaszak's Chicago roots from Emanuel's Washington-insider status. The Teamsters' Waterhouse says the group was wise to focus on trade policy. "Trade is an important election issue for working people in places where jobs are disappearing," says Waterhouse, who argues that unions need to recognize the power of the issue, as well as the importance of remaining consistent on it. "It really is a matter of credibility. We need to be the ones standing strong on these issues. If we say that trade is a central issue and then back people at election time who are on exactly the wrong side of the issue, we might as well say to politicians, Go ahead, screw us again."

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