Bradley Seeks to Tap Unions' Anger
By Thomas B. Edsall
Bishop said Gore had played down his stand on free trade to Iowa unionists when he told them he has "an 88 percent record with you." Bishop said he then told Gore: "I'm a trade unionist. By God, you're going to be there with me or you're not going to be there with me. Your 88 percent doesn't mean anything if you're missing the 12. So thank you very much."
That anger can be found throughout much of the industrial sector of the labor movement--machinists, steelworkers, Teamsters, auto workers--and it could provide an opening for Bill Bradley, whose insurgent challenge for the Democratic presidential nomination depends on rupturing the support Gore has among traditional Democratic constituencies, such as labor.
Trade is a priority issue for manufacturing unions, most of which are losing membership as production has moved overseas or to nonunion plants, and which have been battling the Clinton administration over its trade position. The public sector unions, which have been growing, have been far more favorably inclined toward Gore, who has been an outspoken advocate for union organizing.
Bradley hopes to capitalize on this division within the labor community to prevent an AFL-CIO endorsement of Gore, and perhaps win key union backing for himself in Iowa, the first state in the nominating process. But Bradley's own pro-free trade record makes it difficult for him to weave his way successfully through the minefield of union politics.
The trade issue reflects the dilemma the former New Jersey senator faces in his challenge to Gore. His voting record and views are similar to Gore's, and consequently Bradley must distinguish himself and win support from Democratic groups by differentiating himself more through nuance than by taking opposing stands.
Bradley has signaled his sympathy for labor in a number of ways. He told the Teamsters, for example, that opening up southern borders to Mexican trucks next year may be too soon to ensure safety and environmental standards are met. He also has suggested that he would support allowing unions to win the right to represent workers if a majority signed up, instead of the current system requiring a formal election.
The AFL-CIO Executive Council will address presidential endorsements when it meets in August, although the current betting is that the issue will be postponed. The chances are better that an endorsement will be made at the AFL-CIO convention in October.
A politically unified labor movement is likely to be crucial to the Democratic nominee in November 2000. AFL-CIO political director Steve Rosenthal analyzed 1996 exit polls and found that in five swing states--Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin--President Clinton won among voters from union households, while losing, or barely carrying, voters from nonunion households. These strong union states control 95 electoral college votes.
Gore has much a stronger base of support than Bradley among union leaders. But in contrast to Clinton, who remained popular with most sectors of organized labor despite his trade stance, Gore faces animosity from some segments of labor.
"Some of these guys say, 'Gore takes us for granted, he says trade is a jobs issue, but it's not just a jobs issue, it's the only issue,' " one labor operative said.
But AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney has strong praise for Gore: "Al Gore is the most prominent leader since Franklin Delano Roosevelt to be so strong in his advocacy on behalf of American unions."
"Trade has always been the major tension we have had with this administration," said Peggy Taylor, AFL-CIO legislative director. But she said that Sweeney has "waxed eloquent" about Gore because he "has spoken out on workers' right to choose [a union], he has met with workers trying to organize. He is the most outspoken public official in the last 10 years."
Most major industrial union leaders remain loyal to Sweeney and do not want to publicly attack Gore. But their comments on administration trade policy make clear their concerns.
"We have not been able to get the attention of the administration," said George Becker, president of the United Steelworkers of America, which has lost about 500,000 members over the past 25 years. "This is the heart and soul of the United States, the industrial workers in this country. These are family jobs. . . . I want an administration, a government, that stands for its citizens."
Bradley, in turn, has met a number of times with labor leaders, particularly in Iowa, where the UAW has 40,000 members and offers an ideal base for political organizing. Iowa is critical for Bradley if he is to establish credibility early in the battle for delegates. Moreover, Iowa offers a solid block of liberal caucus-goers, many of whom are unhappy with the administration's centrist policies.
Iowa UAW President David Neil and other UAW members said they interpreted private comments by Bradley to suggest that he will reevaluate his trade stand. But Bradley, who supported the North American Free Trade Agreement when he was in the Senate, "is not reevaluating his position on trade," said spokesman Eric Hauser. Rather, Bradley's comments to the labor leaders meant "he is willing to listen to labor's concerns and is open to hearing their view on making adjustments, or dealing with the consequences that might have arisen," Hauser said.
Listening, some union leaders say, is not enough to persuade dissidents to take a stand against a Gore endorsement.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company