- The Washington Times - Friday, May 26, 2000

The nation's top labor official said Thursday that the AFL-CIO labor federation, though angry with President Clinton over his support for a bitterly contested China trade bill, will throw its organizational muscle behind Vice President Al Gore's presidential bid.
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney also said that the group would work to elect candidates sympathetic to labor's point of view, regardless of party, while top labor officials conceded that the China vote would impede their effort to mobilize on behalf of Democrats.
China reacted positively to the vote, saying House passage was a "wise" step. But Beijing attacked a provision included in the House legislation that would establish a full-time commission to monitor China's human rights record.
Mr. Sweeney said unions are "angry" with the White House for helping pass the China legislation, but stressed repeatedly that he saw no reason to penalize Mr. Gore, who is trailing in the polls against Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
"The vice president is not president," Mr. Sweeney said. "This was clearly the president's bill."
Mr. Sweeney made a distinction between Mr. Clinton's support for the bill and Mr. Gore's, saying the vice president did not do much lobbying of undecided lawmakers.
Mr. Gore did speak out publicly several times, including at a major White House event with former presidents and Cabinet officials, but Mr. Clinton did virtually all the heavy lifting to pass the bill.
Mr. Sweeney had bitter words for the Clinton administration, referring at one point to the "Clinton-DeLay team" that passed the bill. House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican who is normally a foe of Mr. Clinton and other Democrats, led a stunningly successful effort to round up Republican votes for the bill.
Mr. Sweeney also refused to attend a major Democratic fund-raiser at the MCI Center that began hours after the China vote, despite a personal invitation from Mr. Clinton to sit at the head table, according to an AFL-CIO official. Mr. Sweeney, and other top union leaders, had planned to go but believed the timing of the event made their attendance inappropriate.
But the unions did make contributions to the Democratic Party earlier than Wednesday night, the official said.
Organized labor, which mounted its biggest campaign ever to defeat a piece of trade legislation, came up short Wednesday when the House voted 237-197 to grant China permanent access to the U.S. market, a status known as permanent normal trade relations (NTR). Unions charged that the bill, which eases the way for China to enter the World Trade Organization and would lower tariffs on U.S. exports to China, would cost thousands of American jobs.
Politically, the China NTR legislation divided the White House and the 73 Democrats who backed the bill from labor, a core constituency that Mr. Gore needs to win in November.
Mr. Sweeney and other AFL-CIO officials acknowledged that the wounds from the China battle would linger. Labor brings organizational muscle to the political process, and union workers, who register voters and plant yard signs for candidates, may lack the motivation to work on behalf of Democrats, especially those who voted for the bill.
"It's going to make a difficult job more difficult," said Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer. "[Union] members are not going to go to the other side. They're going to stay home."
Steve Rosenthal, the AFL-CIO's political director, also said that Democrats' strategy of holding the trade vote as early as possible to minimize the political damage to the party would have little effect.
"It is naive to think that a vote in May will be forgotten by November," Mr. Rosenthal said.
But Mr. Sweeney and the other AFL-CIO officials stopped short of saying that they would rethink support for Democrats, saying instead that they would take the pulse of the rank and file and the organization's member unions, before making any decisions. But he did say that the AFL-CIO would begin grooming sympathetic candidates for the 2002 elections.
"We're going to have to take a hard look at how to create a new politics that truly serves working Americans," he said.
Mr. Sweeney also acknowledged that the industrial unions that drove the fight against the China bill, the International Brotherhood of the Teamsters and the United Auto Workers, remain at odds with the AFL-CIO on the question of whether to support Mr. Gore. But he predicted that all member unions would close ranks before November.
Neither union has yet endorsed Mr. Gore. UAW President Stephen Yokich on Tuesday threatened to endorse Green Party candidate Ralph Nader for president because of Mr. Gore's support for the China trade legislation. The Teamsters have announced that they will withdraw support from three Democrats who voted for the bill.
Minutes after the vote, House Democrats sought aggressively to control the damage from the vote. Rep. Robert T. Matsui, California Democrat, said members now would focus on issues that unite Democrats, like increases in the minimum wage and Medicare prescription drug benefits.
"We have all pledged at the beginning of this that we would fight hard, we would be very aggressive, but we would be as a family, and at the end of the day, we would come together," he said.
For its part, the White House followed up the China vote with a meeting Thursday on the prescription drug issue that included the House Democratic leadership of Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Minority Whip David E. Bonior of Michigan. Though Mr. Bonior led the fight against the trade legislation, Mr. Clinton said party unity would prevail in the coming months.
"[T]here's much more that unites us than divides us, and I think that as far as I know, there are no divisive issues out there that have remotely the power that the issues we talked about today do," he said.

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