Clinton feels the pinch of labor's bite on fast-track

November 12, 1997|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- In 1993, organized labor fought the enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) tooth and nail, threatening severe retribution at the polls against members of Congress who voted for it. But the legislation putting negotiations with Mexico and Canada on a fast track passed and labor's threat fizzled in the 1994 congressional elections, reinforcing criticism that politically it 55 was a paper tiger.

A success

Four years later, without issuing so categorical a threat against the good legislators, organized labor has been at least temporarily successful in stalling similar fast-track negotiating authority for dealings with other Latin American countries. What happened?

For one thing, the takeover of the AFL-CIO by insurgents led by President John Sweeney has put new aggressiveness and determination into the federation's political arm, giving much greater credibility to even an implied threat of opposition at the polls or withdrawal of assistance from otherwise favored members of Congress.

While the AFL-CIO fell short of its goal in the 1996 congressional elections of returning control of the House to the Democrats, its efforts did cut the Republican majority to the narrowest in years, and served notice that in the 1998 congressional elections it will be going all out to complete the job.

With President Clinton a lame duck, labor's support can be more important in many key congressional districts than his backing. When the Democrats controlled Congress, they could count on some campaign support from business interests prudently covering their bets. But with the Republicans in charge, many of these interests have abandoned Democratic incumbents, so they need organized labor all the more.

Also, although Mr. Clinton has declared NAFTA a great success, the AFL-CIO was able this time around to make a stronger argument against fast-track authority -- giving Congress only an up-or-down vote on trade deals -- on the basis of NAFTA's record as the AFL-CIO sees it.

Trade deficit

A federation spokesman cites statistics indicating the United States' trade deficit with Canada and Mexico jumped from $9 billion in 1993 to $39 billion in 1996 under NAFTA's fast-track authority, while its trade surplus with the rest of Latin America grew from $2.4 billion in 1993 to $8.8 billion in the first eight months of 1997 without the fast-track procedure.

In 1993, Mr. Clinton was obliged to go through the same arm-twisting that fell short this time around. But he promised then to achieve through side agreements adequate labor standards and environmental safeguards on employers in Mexico to protect the competitive position of American labor.

Opponents of fast-track this time effectively charged that such promises had gone unfulfilled under NAFTA, causing job losses and wage depression and convincing working men and women not to buy any more pigs in pokes on the extension of fast-track to other Latin American trading partners.

Politically, the fact that House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt is eyeing another bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000, and is conspicuously courting organized labor, gave more cover to House Democrats opposing the president on this key issue. Mr. Gephardt in 1993 held his nose on NAFTA and voted for it but this time around led the charge against Mr. Clinton on trade, insisting that labor and environmental issues be addressed directly in the core of any new authority.

Also, the AFL-CIO spokesman says, ''there is widespread anxiety among our members worried about jobs moving abroad. Since NAFTA, firms have been more likely in contract talks to threaten to move.''

The White House not surprisingly blamed the Republicans in Congress for the stall, but it was Mr. Clinton's inability to bring enough Democrats along this time, in the face of a record on NAFTA that is vulnerable to labor attack, that was responsible.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 11/12/97

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