- The Washington Times - Monday, March 13, 2000

John Sweeney, head of the AFL-CIO is dedicated to using organized labor's considerable financial and other resources to propel Al Gore into the presidency. But the same John Sweeney has vowed to insist that any international trade agreement must include worker protections, including a ban on child labor.

Specifically referring to the current congressional debate over Mr. Clinton's proposed trade deal with China accelerating that nation's entrance into the World Trade Organization Mr. Sweeney said: "It is disgustingly hypocritical of the Clinton administration to pledge to put a human face on the global economy while prostrating itself in pursuit of a trade deal with a rogue nation."

Despite restrictions on child labor in Chinese law, it exists in that authoritarian nation. Actually, Mr. Clinton's promise to work for international worker and environmental protections is what old-time labor organizers would call "pie in the sky." But on Feb. 17, Al Gore pledged to the AFL-CIO that, as president, he would not sign any trade agreement that does not have the provisions that organized labor wants. Mr. Gore's momentary independence so disturbed the White House and various corporate executives that the vice president rescinded his pledge. In a letter to the head of the National Association of Manufacturers, Mr. Gore said that he certainly supports the Clinton deal of normal, permanent trade relations with China which hardly meets AFL-CIO standards.

John Sweeney, disregarding the long record of Mr. Gore's unstable credibility, is continuing to pledge at least $40 million of AFL-CIO funds to put Mr. Gore in the White House and a majority of Democrats in the other House. More millions of dollars in staff and support services provided by unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO will be part of that mission.

Rank-and-file union members who do not want their dues to fuel the Gore campaign are ignored by the press as it covers labor's efforts for Mr. Gore. Some of them were demonstrating against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle. Many more believe that thousands of factory workers' jobs were lost because of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which Mr. Gore thunderously supported in his celebrated television debate with Ross Perot. And some are aware that union organizers in China are imprisoned. Yet many union members do not know that a line of Supreme Court decisions makes clear that if they disapprove of part of their dues going to a political campaign they do not support, they have a right to a rebate of that portion of their dues. According to a National Labor Relations Board rule, unions are supposed to inform members of that right once a year in a union publication. But that notice, written in legalese, is hardly emphasized, and many members don't read union newspapers carefully, if at all.

The reigning Supreme Court decision on this matter is Beck vs. Communications Workers Union (1988), written by Justice William Brennan (who is hardly a conservative). It states that the financial core obligation of union membership union dues is limited to union expenditures germane to collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance adjustment. And the court said that members are not compelled to have part of their money used for political purposes they reject.

However, this is not an easy way to exercise your conscience if you belong to a union. To take advantage of the Beck vs. Communication Workers Union decision, you first have to resign from the union. You then become an agency fee payer. That means you still have to pay the equivalent of union dues, and you get the same benefits that the remaining members obtain from collective bargaining. But as a nonmember, you can't vote in internal elections; in many unions, you won't be able to vote on ratifying union contracts. And you may be ostracized at work. Other dissident union members choose to stay and seethe.

I belong to two unions: the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) and, through the Village Voice, the United Auto Workers (our catch-all local union was absorbed by the UAW). I organized my first union at the age of 15. A month before Christmas, just as bulk orders from local businesses were coming in, I gave advance notice of a strike to the owners of the candy store at which I worked. We won. I've also helped organize other shops, and I will not resign my union membership. But I respect those workers who, in conscience, decide they will not be forced by John Sweeney to go against their principles. Many of the rest of us will elect to protest Mr. Sweeney's obdurate backing of Al Gore, whose word is no better than that of his mentor, Bill Clinton. Furthermore, Ralph Nader will be on the ballot in many states.

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