Let’s be clear: Any member of Congress who votes for the Central American Free Trade Agreement has signaled their disregard for labor, environmental, farm, consumer and human rights groups that have spent the better part of a year actively opposing the Bush administration’s attempt to create trade policies that favor only the interests of multinational corporations.
That goes for Republicans, for independents and, especially, for Democrats.
The Democratic party has relied heavily on labor support to win and hold competitive seats in the House, and its Democratic representatives cannot hide behind the excuses of White House pressure or political necessity that Republicans employ.
Yet, as a House vote on CAFTA approaches this week, at least six Democrats have announced their support for the deal and as many as a dozen others could still end up supporting it. With broad opposition from textile-state Republicans to the trade deal, Democratic unity against CAFTA can kill the deal. But if just a handful of Democrats side with the Bush agenda on trade, the deal could win approval by a narrow margin.
One of the Democrats who has endorsed CAFTA is Illinois Representative Melissa Bean, who last year took the seat of Republican veteran Phil Crane.
Bean could come to regret her decision. She won her 2004 race with strong support from unions, which contributed $235,000 to the effort. And she will been courting labor support for her reelection bid in 2006, when she will face a strong GOP challenge in a traditionally Republican district. Bean’s fund-raising efforts have been assisted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) — headed by Illinois Representative Rahm Emanuel, a militant advocate for the North American Free Trade Agreement when he served as an aide to then-President Bill Clinton. The DCCC has designated her as one of its so-called “Frontline” candidates. The “Frontline” initiative seeks to fill the campaign coffers of the ten House incumbents who are likely to face the toughest challenges from Republicans next year.
This week, however, leaders of some of the largest unions in the country have indicated that they will not be backing Frontline candidates who vote for CAFTA, and they are urging the DCCC to drop Frontline efforts for members who support the deal. Bean is identified by name in the letter, along with Representatives Jim Matheson, D-Utah, and Dennis Moore, D-Kansas, both of whom have voted for free-trade pacts in the past and are seen as potential CAFTA backers.
The letter, which was sent to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Emanuel and other House Democratic leaders, declares that, “We recognize that the party and House Democrats are not homogeneous, that every member has a right to vote his or her conscience on all issues, including CAFTA. But this letter is to make it clear that we find it both objectionable and unacceptable that Leadership and the DCCC are pushing the Federation and individual affiliates to support vulnerable incumbents — the so-called ‘Frontline Candidates,’ and some of these members are poised to desert labor on this core issue.”
“This week,” the letter continues, “three of those members who benefited from labor’s substantial support, Melissa Bean, Jim Matheson and Dennis Moore, are either undecided on how they will vote on CAFTA or are leaning in the direction of supporting it. We expect that House Democratic Leadership will convey very strongly to all wavering Democrats, and particularly to Frontline Candidates, that voting for CAFTA against our strong, clear, and loud objections, would signal to the labor movement that those Frontline Candidates do not want our support.”
In case there was any confusion about the letter’s message, it closes with a declaration that, “Our work to help elect at-risk members, at your urging, will not extend to those who vote against us on this issue. As such, we hope that you will also convey to them that we believe those who receive our support have an obligation to vote with us on CAFTA. Further, we ask that the DCCC remove from Frontline status any member who votes wrong on CAFTA. Simply put, there must be real and measurable consequences for opposing labor on this issue. The stakes are too high for the workers of America. We cannot and we will not give any Democrat a pass on CAFTA.”
The signers of the letter, which was organized by Fire Fighters union president Harold A. Schaitberger, included the presidents of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the American Federation of Teachers, the Building and Construction Trades Department, the Iron Workers, the Machinists, the Boilermakers; the Electrical Workers, the Teamsters, the Painters, the Seafarers, the Service Employees, the Sheet Metal Workers, the Transportation-Communications International Union, UNITE-HERE, the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry, the Auto Workers, the Food and Commercial Workers, the Steelworkers and the Laborer’s.
What is striking about that list is that it includes unions that have remained loyal to the AFL-CIO and unions allied with the dissident Change to Win coalition. The Change to Win unions have made it clear that they want to hold Democrats to a higher standard of accountability on issues such as CAFTA. And it seems the AFL-CIO is moving in that direction. Delegates to the federation’s convention in Chicago this week adopted a resolution submitted by the Fire Fighters, which commits the AFL-CIO to “a non-partisan political and legislative strategy that bases labors’ support on union issues and worker issues, not political parties.”