- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 13, 2000

Thousands of labor union workers yesterday rallied outside the U.S. Capitol against a landmark trade deal with China, then iron workers, truckers and teachers filled the halls of Congress to lobby senators and representatives.

"Let's go to the Hill and let's give 'em [something to think about]," said James P. Hoffa, president of the Teamsters union.

The unions protested a proposed trade pact in which China agreed to open its markets to U.S. goods and services. In exchange, the United States must grant China permanent access to the its markets, a status known as normal trade relations (NTR).

The Clinton administration, allied with the Republican congressional leadership, is facing a difficult fight in the House to round up enough Democrats to support NTR for China. Keenly aware of the need to hold this vital group, union members fanned out after the rallies to make their case personally.

The demonstration was part of a broader, weeklong series of protests by various groups opposing policies of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, which will be meeting here next week.

Last night, Metropolitan Police arrested seven protesters near the groups' headquarters. Information on charges was not immediately available.

Union members virtually took over Capitol Hill for most of the day in a demonstration of grass-roots strength that labor's opponents in the China debate might be hard-pressed to match. Union officials were planning 60 meetings with Congress members, and set a goal of four separate visits by rank-and-file delegations to each of the 535 congressional offices, according to the AFL-CIO.

Police had few problems with the estimated 15,000 demonstrators, the largest crowd so far in a series of planned protests against the international financial agencies. There were no arrests.

"It was a peaceful demonstration as we expected all along," said Lt. Dan Nichols, spokesman for the U.S. Capitol Police.

The only disruptions came in the form of pop music and horns blaring from 14 tractor-trailers that crisscrossed in front of the west side of the Capitol. Teen-agers danced to the sounds and elderly union members in T-shirts raised their fists as the truckers drove by.

The unions charge that passage of NTR would cost U.S. jobs as American companies move factories to China in search of cheap labor.

"We're here because President Bill Clinton and the Republican leadership … are about to betray the country by passing permanent NTR," George Becker, president of the United Steelworkers of America, said at a rally on the steps of the Capitol.

Mr. Hoffa warned Congress not to underestimate the power of organized labor to defeat trade legislation. Labor helped stop "in its tracks" passage of fast-track trade negotiating authority in 1997, he noted.

"I've been concerned about the impact labor is going to have with or without 10,000 people walking on the Hill," Commerce Secretary William M. Daley told reporters before the demonstration.

Speakers urged undecided members of Congress to deny NTR for China. Labor unions oppose China's human rights violations and fear that 800,000 or more jobs will be lost to underpaid workers abroad.

"Please take the spirit of the rally home with you," said AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney. "Our message is that until there is a permanent change of values in China, there will be no permanent normal trade relations."

Politicians supporting labor's efforts came from all over the political spectrum, from labor stalwart Rep. David E. Bonior, Michigan Democrat, to Rep. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent, and Rep. Christopher Cox, California Republican.

Television commentator Pat Buchanan, a contender to become the Reform Party's nominee for president, egged on union members in their battle to defeat NTR for China. "The jobs of Americans … come ahead of the stock options of the Fortune 500," he said.

China's trade status currently is reviewed on an annual basis. Legislation being pushed by the Clinton administration and the Republican leadership would end the annual congressional reviews and pave the way for China's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO).

"People in America who have good-paying Teamster jobs … can't compete with citizens of a country that make 19 cents an hour," said Paul Waterhouse, 54, a Teamster business agent from Local No. 705 in Chicago.

Pro-NTR forces still face a difficult fight to obtain even a narrow majority in the House, where many Democrats, and a smaller number of Republicans, are determined to sink the legislation.

Standing alongside union leaders on the podium, members of Congress like Rep. Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, lauded the workers' efforts.

"Nothing is more eloquent to a member of Congress than the voice of his own constituent," she told the unions.

"This deal is a bad deal for the American economy," she said. "You are beautiful… . You are right."

Mr. Sweeney called the gathering the largest assembly of union workers ever to lobby Washington in a single day. The Teamsters alone brought 5,000.

The protesters' so-called "Days of Action" demonstrations will continue this week and culminate Sunday and Monday, when as many as 10,000 activists plan to use "large-scale, nonviolent direct action" to try to shut down the World Bank and IMF meetings.

Metropolitan Police have closed 19th Street NW between G Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, and H Street NW between 18th and 20th streets until further notice.

A federal government source said the government plans to keep its downtown offices open despite the expected demonstrations. The source said, however, that federal employees who do not wish to come to work will be allowed to use leave.

"If they don't want to come in, no one is going to hold their feet to the fire," said the source, who is familiar with government's plans.

• Clarence Williams and Jim Keary contributed to this report.

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