Vice President Gore and former senator Bill Bradley (N.J.), seeking votes in this key presidential caucus state, acknowledged before hundreds of labor activists here this week that many people have been bypassed by the prosperity most of America is experiencing.
In speeches today at an AFL-CIO convention and a family farm before that, Gore said that while the overall economy of Iowa, like the rest of the country, is strong, many farmers and manufacturing workers are being left out. A day earlier, Bradley told union workers that "one of my absolute key objectives is to make sure that more Americans, working families in America, get on this prosperity train."
Bradley's and Gore's appearances here underscore the importance of the labor constituency to the Democratic Party. The endorsement of the unions in Iowa is important because they provide so much organizational support--knocking on doors, sending mail, organizing rallies. In states such as Iowa that have political caucus systems, where candidates must turn out people at thousands of precinct meetings to vote for them, that effort can be crucial.
Both Democratic presidential candidates are generally viewed favorably by labor unions nationally and here in Iowa. And their speeches at the Iowa AFL-CIO convention hit the right pro-union chord on issues from raising the minimum wage to bolstering striker protections and strengthening right-to-organize laws. But neither offered specific new positions to address perhaps the single most important concern of the industrial and manufacturing workers here: trade.
Gore, who spoke this afternoon to the group at the Five Sullivan Brothers Convention Center in downtown Waterloo, came close when he called for a "new way" on the trade issues that have long divided the Clinton administration and organized labor. Both President Clinton and Gore have pressed for free-trade agreements that open more markets for American products. Labor leaders say those agreements have cost American workers jobs as businesses moved to countries that have lower labor and environmental standards.
Gore told the workers here that "we cannot open markets, but close the door on protections for America's workers. We're going to move those exports out and those jobs up." To some, it sounded as if he were offering a new pro-union trade policy proposal. But in a news conference after his speech, Gore said he simply was arguing that "labor and environmental concerns need to be integrated into the negotiating approach of our country."
When a worker pressed Bradley after his speech Wednesday for his position on repealing the North American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, he volunteered that there was no realistic chance of that happening.
"Both are pretty good on the basic worker rights issues, but they both support these NAFTA and GATT trade situations," Mike Harkin, a steelworker and local labor union leader from near Des Moines, said of Gore and Bradley. "They're really pretty similar."
The two had strong pro-union voting records as senators--Gore's was 88 percent and Bradley's was 86 percent, according to officials at the AFL-CIO national office in Washington. Because they share the same unpopular position on trade, it is unlikely to make a difference in winning support among union members. The unions are not likely to bolt to any of the Republican candidates, who hold unacceptable positions on a number of issues important to labor.
Gore has already wrapped up the endorsement of the Iowa United Auto Workers Union, as well as the state union representing government workers. The state AFL-CIO, by its charter, cannot endorse presidential candidates, but several local affiliates have endorsed Gore. AFL-CIO delegates from around the country will meet in October to decide which candidate the federation will endorse or whether it will endorse anyone.
State AFL-CIO president Mark Smith and other activists here said Gore had the edge among the Iowa AFL-CIO's 55,000 members. Some of that has to do with voters' familiarity with Gore as well as Gore's perceived electability. A Des Moines Register poll this month showed Gore leading Bradley 64 percent to 24 percent.
"I just think Gore is more electable," said Steve Siegel, a local union leader from the southern part of the state. "I think we would support either one if they were nominated. But I want a winner."
In his speech, Gore accused the GOP-led Congress of threatening economic prosperity and the future of Social Security and other programs with its $800 billion tax cut plan. He chided Republicans for opposing major health care reform and accused them of trying to dismantle and weaken labor laws. "President Clinton has vetoed every anti-labor bill that has come across his desk," Gore said, declaring that if Republicans "keep on doing it, I'll veto every anti-labor bill that comes across my desk."
Both Bradley and Gore emphasized their long ties to labor. Gore noted that his father was the first labor secretary of Tennessee and that his own pro-labor record had been compiled in the South, where unions are not typically strong.
Bradley noted that he was a shop steward for nine years during his tenure in the NBA. "That was at a time when the average salary was $9,500," he said. "That was a time when you had to go out and fight for things like a pension, like health care, like the things that every union in America has fought for."