The Unions Vs. Pro Nafta Democrats: Get Over It

After 12 years of insult from Republican Administrations, the last thing unions needed was a political defeat inflicted by a Democratic President they helped elect. But that's what labor got with the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Now, union leaders and the Democratic Party find themselves wondering how to bridge the rift between them.

In truth, the two sides have been drifting apart for years. A growing number of Democrats, led by President Clinton, have focused on the competitive demands of a global economy. Organized labor, meanwhile, has tried to hold back the tide. The NAFTA fight only highlighted the schism. "It's clear that the union movement does have to go through dramatic change," says Richard W. Hurd, professor at Cornell University's School of Industrial & Labor Relations. "Rather than protecting the current system, they need to respond to the changing economy."

NARROW AGENDA. For years, labor and the Democrats saw the world through the same economic and social prism. As long as the U.S. was a self-reliant industrial powerhouse, the goal for both was making sure that wealth was distributed fairly. But now, the flight of low-wage jobs has thrown labor into turmoil. Membership in manufacturing unions has declined precipitously, and cost-conscious employers are balking at union demands for big gains at the bargaining table. "There's a sense that labor is operating in an old '60s agenda and doesn't understand that things have changed," says Democratic strategist Ted Van Dyk.

Clinton and 102 House Democrats, meanwhile, saw NAFTA as a way to create jobs and expand the wealth base. Moreover, Clinton hoped to appeal to a broad middle-class often angered by what it perceives as labor's narrow agenda. The '92 elections also strengthened the ranks of moderates willing to wreak havoc on labor-backed initiatives, such as Clinton's economic stimulus plan.

These divergent outlooks transformed the NAFTA fight into a battle for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party. Clinton accused the unions of "roughshod" tactics. Pro-NAFTA Democrats are still sore that the unions played hardball. "No organization can expect this member of Congress to be an automatic vote on anything," fumes Representative Mel Reynolds (D-Ill.). For their part, union leaders vowed revenge in the 1994 elections and have hinted that Clinton can't take their support in '96 for granted.

It would be a mistake for both sides if the family feud went much further. As much of a New Democrat as he is, Clinton can't afford to alienate the unions. Their political contributions and foot soldiers form the cornerstone of Democratic campaigns. Indeed, the NAFTA voting patterns in the House could spell trouble for Clinton if he doesn't mend fences. Union-backed Democratic lawmakers from states that cast their electoral votes for Clinton in 1992 voted overwhelmingly against the trade pact. That's why, on the day after the the NAFTA vote, Clinton called AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland to arrange a meeting at the end of November.

Likewise, labor will embark on a suicide mission if it withholds support. Clinton is probably as good a friend as labor can get. Indeed, a senior White House official says, the Administration will "redouble efforts" to push for worker-retraining legislation and a bill to bar the replacement of striking workers. And Clinton's help in ending the flight attendants' strike against American Airlines Inc. is a far cry from Ronald Reagan's firing of air-traffic controllers.

But for labor and the Clintonites to reach an accommodation, union leaders must abandon efforts to stop immutable economic forces. Instead, they must take the lead in preparing workers to face upheaval. Labor and Democrats share an ambitious agenda that includes health care, job training, improved schools, and worker-safety initiatives. "We had an intense squabble, but it's time to move on," says Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich. After the passions of NAFTA have cooled, unions may discover they agree.

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