In the past decade, the AFL-CIO has lobbied Congress on three major issues of any importance to union members:
- Oppose the North American Free Trade Agreement;
- Oppose permanent normal trade relations with China;
- Support drilling for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The unions lost every vote. Demonstrating his savvy political skills, the head of the AFL-CIO, John Sweeney, repeatedly throws the federation's support to political candidates who opposed labor on all three issues. So if you ever find yourself negotiating with Sweeney, make sure your opening bid is "nothing."
Sweeney's curious lose-at-any-price strategy has cost the unions everything. The only two Democratic presidential candidates to vote with the unions on any of these issues – not all, but any – were Representatives Dick Gephardt and Dennis Kucinich. Gephardt was out of the race after the first primary, and Kucinich can't break beyond the Aliens-Kidnapped-My-Mother crowd. (Dennis Kucinich did his tax return this week, and under "occupation" he wrote "Jay Leno punch line.")
There is only one candidate for president who didn't vote for NAFTA, didn't vote for trade with China and supported drilling in ANWR. That candidate is George Bush. He got into office by beating Al Gore – the guy who was the head cheerleader for NAFTA. And unlike Dick Gephardt, Bush spends more time on the phone with Jimmy Hoffa than with Barbra Streisand. As president, Bush enraged free traders – and our precious European "allies" – by imposing tariffs on steel imports.
Sweeney has rewarded Bush by calling him a "horror" for organized labor. Apparently what "organized labor" really wants isn't good jobs at good wages, but ... abortion on demand! The AFL-CIO has vowed to devote massive union resources against Bush in the crucial swing states of Missouri, Ohio and Florida in the coming election.
Strictly following his strategy of selling union votes for nothing, the AFL-CIO has endorsed Sen. John Kerry – who voted for NAFTA, voted for trade with China and voted against drilling for oil in Alaska. Skilled laborers will have to wait another day for "fair trade" and high-paying jobs in Alaska, but at least Sweeney's candidate supports the issues that really matter to the average blue-collar worker: gay marriage, global-warming treaties and hybrid cars.
Kerry denounces "Benedict Arnold" CEOs who ship "American jobs overseas." (Experts are still trying to figure out why Kerry didn't mention his service in Vietnam in that statement.) Sweeney seems to be satisfied with Kerry's explanation that – like his vote for war with Iraq – he voted for free trade, but then was shocked when free trade resulted.
Sen. John Edwards calls protection of U.S. jobs "a moral issue." Reminding audiences that he is the son of a mill worker almost as often as Kerry mentions that he served in Vietnam, Edwards says that "when we talk about trade, we are talking about values." As the son of a mill worker, he has seen with his "own eyes" what bad trade agreements "do to people." Of the evil trade agreements (supported by AFL-CIO's candidate) Edwards says: "Those trade deals were wrong. They cost us too many jobs and lowered our standards."
Except – like Kerry – Edwards also voted for those trade agreements every chance he got. In 2000, Edwards voted for trade with China. Having seen with his "own eyes" what happens "when the mill shuts down," Edwards voted to shut down a few more mills. Edwards also voted his conscience to oppose drilling in Alaska. Whenever Edwards' conscience speaks to him, it sounds remarkably like Barbra Streisand.
Edwards' only fig leaf for claiming he backs labor is a hypothetical vote he never actually cast. He bravely claims he would have voted against NAFTA – if only he had been in the Senate when it came up for a vote.
That's an interesting moral calculus. Edwards didn't mind forcing American workers to compete with a billion Chinese – famously including child workers and slave laborers. But trade with Canada and Mexico he says would have offended his delicate moral sensibilities.
In his stump speech, Edwards implies he ran against Jesse Helms by saying he beat "the Jesse Helms machine" to win his Senate seat. It was a real David and Goliath match-up – pitting a poor, beleaguered multimillionaire trial lawyer against an elderly senator of humble means. But the mere mention of Helms' name invariably elicits sneers from the party of the little guy.
Helms voted with the AFL-CIO on all three big labor issues – against NAFTA, against trade with China and for half a million good jobs in Alaska. Indeed, Helms was one of the main lobbyists against trade with China. The guy Edwards actually beat, Lauch Faircloth, was in the Senate for only one of these votes. The AFL-CIO didn't have to take Faircloth's word on how he might have voted on NAFTA: He voted against it. The AFL-CIO endorsed Edwards and opposed Faircloth and Helms.
It's not particularly surprising that the party of trial lawyers, environmentalists and Hollywood actresses keeps voting against blue collar workers. What's strange is that the AFL-CIO keeps voting against blue-collar workers, too.