Will Clinton Get An Early Labor Endorsement?
When Bill Clinton appeared at the AFL-CIO convention in New York last fall, he was greeted with unrestrained enthusiasm. Outgoing federation president Tom Donahue and incoming leader John Sweeney united to proclaim Clinton labor's candidate, while delegates took to their feet to applaud him. Labor Secretary Robert Reich received a similar reception, and was hailed as labor's man in the administration.But with November drawing closer, support for Clinton's reelection among the federation's sixteen million members is less than a sure thing. Last month, the AFL-CIO's new leaders scheduled a special meeting of the organization's executive council with the intention of offering an unprecedented early endorsement of the president. But a week before it was set to take place, the meeting was suddenly called off, revealing discord over Clinton's labor credentials.Indeed, the apparent display of deep support for Clinton at the convention was deceptive. Few delegates were rank-and-file workers; most came from union staff appointed by international union officers committed to the Democratic Party and its candidates. Moreover, great care was taken in New York to avoid open confrontation over the most bitter issues which have divided labor and the Clinton Administration for the past three years. NAFTA was hardly mentioned. There were no denunciations of the failure to pass a national health-care program. Weak administration support for the bill banning striker replacement (despite a Democratic Congress at the time) was de-emphasized, while praise was lavished on Clinton for issuing an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from engaging in this practice. (That order, which was never enforced, was recently overturned in federal court.) Meanwhile, the Republicans were blamed for proposals to weaken legal restrictions against company unions -- but those proposals were drafted by the Dunlop Commission, an entity created by Reich's ownLABOR DEPARTMENT Presidential triumphalism at the convention belied the fact that a number of national union leaders have become increasingly critical of labor's cozy relationship with the president and the Democratic Party. It was the concerns of these leaders, along with lackluster support for the president among rank-and-file union members, which led to the tabling of the early-endorsement idea."At the end of the day we may well be faced with a decision about whether we should support Bill Clinton, as opposed to a number of other people we couldn't support in a million years," says Bob Wages, president of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW). "But that's different from the question of when we should endorse him, and what conditions we should put on the process." Like many unions, the OCAW -- which represents about 100,000 U.S. workers, mostly at oil refineries belonging to some of the world's largest corporations -- has been victimized by massive corporate downsizing undertaken even as profits soar. Last year, for example, Exxon's profits totaled $30.9 billion, yet over the last five years the company has cut 18,000 jobs -- seventeen percent of its workforce. Chevron netted $10.2 billion in 1995 while cutting 9,000 jobs since 1991; Mobil made $10.8 billion last year while eliminating 8,800 jobs in the past five years.Wages maintains that Clinton has done little to protect workers against the ravages of the free market, and therefore believes that the AFL-CIO should reconsider the notion of an early endorsement. If oil workers were the only ones confronting this crisis, such criticism might be written off. But in industry after industry, the picture is the same.Meanwhile, says Wages, Clinton has crafted economic policies modeled on the old 1950s adage that what's good for General Motors is good for the country. Pointing to the recent budget negotiations with the Republicans, he accuses Clinton of often proposing a less extreme version of conservative ideas, such as increasing Medicaid costs for the elderly, barring legal immigrants from receiving Social Security, and supporting a cut in the capital-gains tax. "I don't hear him talking about cutting corporate welfare. I don't hear him talking about issues that would resonate with working people," he says.The worst offense, claims Wages, is the enthusiastic support by a Democratic administration for one of the hallmarks of the Reagan- Bush years: free-trade proposals. Clinton's trade agenda was largely a product of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and centered on support for NAFTA and GATT. The party's platform itself was written by "new Democrats," including Fritz Hollings, Roy Roehmer, and Richard Selby.This group insists that in order for Democrats to compete with Republicans for swing voters in an ever-smaller electorate, they must move away from their traditional constituencies, including unions, racial minorities, and women. The DLC's growing clout was reflected in the fact that the Democratic Party platform in 1992 didn't even mention the word union.Many labor activists viewed the platform and the ascendancy of the DLC as a prelude to the support the administration later gave to NAFTA, GATT, and other measures that eliminated thousands of jobs. "Bill Clinton and the 'new Democrats' are internationalists," Wages asserts. "They believe in global capital's ability to move, to free up markets, to produce goods and services and bring them back into the United States. They say that creates healthy competition." The problem, according to Wages, is that the administration is in denial over the tremendous loss of jobs and the erosion of wages caused by free-market economics. At a press conference during the New York convention, Reich was asked to comment on figures compiled by his own department, which showed that over 35,000 jobs had been lost as a result of NAFTA. (Many observers believe that the real job-loss figure is several times higher.) He responded by saying that the agreement had created 140,000 jobs in 1994 alone."The man's delusional," Wages laughs. "There can be no honest argument by this administration or by Secretary Reich that NAFTA has been good for this country. And the worker electorate sees that its economic interests are not being protected. People wake up every day worried about their jobs. Bill Clinton can't expect American workers to understand an economic policy which puts their jobs at risk for trade advantages in foreign countries -- not when he's unwilling to take on corporate welfare, even as defined by his own administration. He thinks somehow he can out-Republican Newt and the boys. I don't think he can."Out of frustration, workers vent their anger in the voting booth, says Wages, reacting to hot-button issues raised by conservative ideologues such as illegal immigration and gun control. "[Workers] start gravitating to the issues of the Republican right and fall victim to them because we're not having an honest debate about our future."And that's the problem he sees with the early endorsement. "An endorsement doesn't mean anything if we can't deliver people," Wages declares. "We can't deliver people on the economic policies this administration represents. The test here isn't whether or not unions are going to endorse Bill Clinton. It's whether unions can put millions of people on the street working for him and get them to the polls to vote for him."As an alternative, Wages wants the AFL-CIO to draw up its own program -- an economic agenda on issues like jobs, tax policy, campaign financing, and health care. With that agenda in hand, the federation should demand an economic summit with the president, and presumably some commitment to changing its policies. "We are a principal constituency. If we can't get an economic summit with him, we should tell everyone where we stand in regard to his agenda."Wages recognizes that many people at the top levels of the AFL-CIO want to downplay labor's differences with Clinton in the interest of ensuring the president's reelection and the defeat of congressional Republicans. He also praises Clinton for certain "institutional" moves, such as his appointments to the National Labor Relations Board and his commitment to the Davis-Bacon Act (which protects prevailing wages on federal contracts) and the Occupational Safety and Health Act. But to union leaders who argue that Clinton has delivered the goods, he says, "There's a difference between whether Bill Clinton has supported some of the institutional needs of unions and whether or not he embraces an economic policy which benefits working men and women."Spurred by his unhappiness with the current administration, Wages has begun to look beyond the Democrats. The OCAW is one of the few unions that have endorsed Labor Party Advocates (LPA), an organization which is exploring the idea of establishing a labor party. (A founding convention is set for June in Cleveland.) Other LPA backers include the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees (a railroad union), and the independent United Electrical Workers, along with numerous union locals and labor councils. Some voices within LPA are calling for a party which would immediately nominate and run candidates in the November general election. Wages, however, sees LPA more as a vehicle through which rank-and-file union members and activists can participate in framing a progressive economic agenda and apply pressure from below for a more independent approach to electoral politics.While Wages' political views clearly place him at one end of the spectrum within the AFL-CIO, he contends that he is far from alone. "I think anyone who deals with corporate America day in and day out will privately agree with everything I've said, and many of them do. I sit in meetings and articulate these things, and people nod their heads. The question is, how do you move from agreement to action in response to it."As for how his bluntly articulated dissent may affect his union's relationship with the administration and the Democratic Party, Wages doesn't seem to care. "I'm not consumed by whether my institutional concern gets proper response from the administration if working men and women are getting shafted out in the real world. The problem is, the average working stiffs are lost in all this. My job, as I see it, is to try to say what they're thinking and what they're feeling. And if people don't like that, tough shit."