WATERLOO, Iowa — Democratic presidential hopefuls courted union voters yesterday, promising to strengthen the middle class by allowing workers to organize and bashing insurance and drug companies as barriers to universal health care.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York avoided criticizing the North American Free Trade Agreement, a signature of her husband’s administration that labor organizations oppose, and instead said the next president must “rethink and redesign” trade policy with other countries.
“I’m for smart, pro-American trade. We want to be able to have a competitive posture in the world but we don’t want to be taken for granted and treated like suckers,” Mrs. Clinton said.
She was one of six Democratic presidential candidates who spoke at a convention of the Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, promising universal health care and hailing the labor movement as critical to building the middle class. The federation’s endorsement of a candidate is considered a key to deciding the first-in-the-nation contest for the presidential nomination.
“Nobody really stands out to me just yet,” said David Brisbois, a member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “They are always going to start off telling you what you want to hear.”
Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois said that if he becomes president, he would sign the Employee Free Choice Act and support only trade agreements that expand the economy and protect workers.
“If it’s only good for the Dow Jones but it’s not good for Jim Jones or Fred Jones or Sally Jones, I don’t want to be part of that trade agreement,” he said.
Mr. Obama said insurance and drug companies have spent $1 billion fighting expansion of federally funded health care. “It’s no wonder that they got what they paid for,” he said.
Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina said the union movement “built the middle class in this country.”
He touted his efforts for labor since he left the Senate in 2005. “Think about it: a president of the United States walking a picket line. You’re looking at one,” he said.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware accused President Bush of declaring two wars: “one on Iraq and one on labor.”
In his first year in the White House, he said, he would ensure that all children have health insurance and all Americans have catastrophic coverage.
He pledged to fight insurance companies with their own medicine: by using “the bully pulpit to make [them] the most disliked industry in the United States.”
Mrs. Clinton didn’t attack the insurance companies, but said she would pursue health care “in a way that will work” because “the forces are so powerful on the other side.”
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson was cheered when promising: “All those union-busting attorneys at [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration] would be gone when I am president.”
Days after the recall of millions of children’s toys decorated with lead paint or made with magnets that pose a choking hazard, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut called on Mr. Bush to suspend Chinese imports. “Parents should be confident that the toys and food that they give their children have been inspected and are safe,” he said.
The national AFL-CIO has postponed endorsement of a candidate, allowing labor groups like the one in Iowa to make their own recommendations to members.