Unions must flex muscle with candidates
Columnist: John Nichols
On the night before the AFL-CIO delivered the blessing of the
American trade union movement to Al Gore, I sat on the steps of
Mildred's Sandwich Shop on East Johnson Street talking with an actual trade unionist.
Patty Allen worked more than two decades on the line at the Oscar
Mayer meatpacking plant, and now she works for the university. She
has walked picket lines, spent long hours at steward's meetings,
attended union conventions and done her best to cast her ballots for
candidates who share the values and the goals of the labor movement.
"Is the AFL-CIO going to endorse Gore?'' Patty asked.
"They'll do it tomorrow,'' I replied.
Patty jumped up. "Why?'' she said. "Why are they backing Gore? He's for NAFTA. He's for GATT. On the big issues we've fought on, he's been on the other side. How can they back Gore?''
Al Gore is not a union basher like George W. Bush or John McCain. He hasn't stayed up late at night trying to figure out how to screw over working people the way that Republican congressional leaders such as Trent Lott, Tom DeLay and Wisconsin's own Jim Sensenbrenner and Paul Ryan do.
When Gore served in the Senate, he had a tolerable labor record,
voting with the union movement far more frequently than did Bill
Bradley. Heck, his dad, former U.S. Sen. Albert Gore, got his start
in Tennessee politics as a crusading state labor commissioner who
proudly borrowed ideas from the progressive state of Wisconsin.
But the vice president has not earned the endorsement of the union
movement. On the most significant issue for labor in the1990s --the battle over the North American Free Trade Agreement -- Gore was the point man for the anti-labor position. And that was simply the most blatant illustration of Gore's wrong-at-every-turn position on issues of trade and globalization of the economy.
Bradley's no better, of course. On the floor of the Senate, he organized support for NAFTA and the General Agreement of Tariffs and Trade -- a pair of agreements that have harmed American workers (the Clinton-Gore administration's own Department of Labor has documented the job losses), that have depressed wages in the United States and other countries and that have undermined worker safety rules, environmental regulations and consumer protections.
There are those in the American Federation of Labor-Congress of
Industrial Organizations leadership who try to make the case that
their choices are limited and that the time had come to make a pick.
But that's the sort of defeatist attitude that has gotten labor exactly where it is today -- right on just about every issue but far less of a political force than it should be.
The labor movement ought to be using its political muscle to force
politicians like Gore and Bradley to work for the interests of working people. And if the Gores and Bradleys aren't willing to side with America's unions against the forces of corporate excess, monopoly and globalization, then America's unions ought to go out and find a better candidate.
Then, maybe, working people like Patty Allen wouldn't have to ask, "Why?''
John Nichols is the editorial page editor of The Capital Times.
© 1999 The Capital Times