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NEW YORK, Oct 26 1999 (IPS) - The US presidential campaign may be more than one year away but organised labour already has thrown its weight behind Vice President Al Gore – a candidate with strong pro- business and free-trade leanings.
The leadership of the main US labour coalition, the American Federation of Labour-Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL- CIO), provoked some second-guessing when it endorsed Gore earlier this month for next year’s Democratic Party nomination.
From the right came a barrage of accusations that the AFL-CIO had acted too quickly in endorsing a Democratic candidate, 13 months before the election in November 2000. Even leftists, who praised the rise of John Sweeney to the AFL-CIO presidency four years ago, raised their eyebrows at the Gore endorsement.
Paul Buhle – a historian whose recent book, ‘Taking Care of Business’ studied the evolution of the AFL-CIO – noted that, despite Sweeney’s progressive politics, the Gore endorsement fitted the middle-of-the-road policies of past labour leaders.
“The AFL-CIO once again is pouring all its money and all its resources into electing a centrist Democrat,” Buhle said.
Leftist journalists Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, in their journal ‘Counterpunch,’ also attacked the union leaders for swinging too quickly behind free-trade Democratic policies that they contended had hindered workers’ rights.
By contrast Gore, who was facing a stiff challenge for the Democratic nomination from former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley, pledged his solidarity with the labour movement at the AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles.
“With the AFL-CIO by my side, we’re going to win this nomination next summer, and we’re going to win this election in the year 2000,” Gore said.
Clearly, Sweeney had increased the political clout of the AFL- CIO since he replaced Lane Kirkland as the organisation’s head in 1995, in what Buhle called a “palace coup.”
Republicans were furious last year when labour leaders sank millions of dollars into supporting Democratic candidates in legislative elections. According to election-day surveys, some 22 percent of voters last year belonged to union households, and nearly two-thirds of them voted for Democrats.
The close ties to the centre-left Democrats have yielded some gains for labour in recent years, including several pushes to increase the minimum wage.
Yet some labour leaders wondered why the AFL-CIO was so eager to give an early endorsement to Gore, who has backed such free- trade pacts as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT).
Teamsters President James Hoffa – whose father, Jimmy Hoffa, repeatedly feuded with Democratic President John F. Kennedy – refused to allow his union to join in the AFL-CIO endorsement of Gore. Another key union, the United Auto Workers, also withheld its endorsement.
The continued controversy over the Gore support showed how much change actually had occurred in the AFL-CIO since Sweeney – along with progressive labour leaders like Rich Trumka of the United Mine Workers – rose to the top of the organisation.
Cockburn and St. Clair wrote that “there’s no doubt when Sweeney took over four years ago, the new regime put heart into people forlorn by years of inertia and defeat in the Kirkland years.”
“There have been so many good changes near the top that one is very reluctant to say that nothing has changed,” Buhle argued.
He pointed to the increased amount of US labour solidarity with workers in the developing world, including campaigns to support workers’ rights in Central America.
Such labour internationalism, he argued, was a welcome change from previous decades, when US labour groups allegedly cooperated with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in containing labour radicalism worldwide.
Yet Buhle noted that, at the same time, the modern AFL-CIO still paid for activities that did not advance international labour goals – including funding for radio broadcasts supporting Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who has been criticised by union leaders in his own country.
Buhle praised recent efforts to organise workers across international borders – such as efforts to unite with Mexican workers – as a “real step forward.” But he noted that one of the most effective unions working at cross-border organising has been the United Electrical Workers, which is not an AFL-CIO member.
Meanwhile, according to Cockburn and St. Clair, Sweeney’s efforts to increase union organising efforts in the United Sates have been “patchy at best.”
One of the most significant defeats was the failure by the United Farm Workers to win the right to organise Watsonville, California, strawberry workers – even though the AFL-CIO gave 12 million dollars to that campaign.
This summer, the Watsonville workers chose to be represented by a non-AFL-CIO union.
Yet labour leaders remained confident they would again demonstrate their clout once the election season began in earnest ins. Steve Rosenthal, the AFL-CIO’s political director, said that the unions would begin to mobilise their membership to help Gore secure votes next year.
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