On Nov. 9, 1993, in his first major victory as vice president, Al Gore proudly trounced Ross Perot in a debate on the North American Free Trade Agreement, which soon passed Congress despite strong labor opposition.
Yet six years later, in the wake of union-led protests that helped derail the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Seattle, Mr. Gore as a Democratic presidential contender faces mounting pressure to temper his free-trade views and lock elbows with organized labor.
With Gore counting on unions for money and manpower, the new tension carries risks: It could make labor's support more tenuous or prod Gore away from centrist positions on the economy - making him more vulnerable to Republican attack.
For now, Gore is moving to sympathize with the Seattle demonstrators. In recent days, he has calibrated his free-trader credentials by stressing the need to balance trade growth with stronger labor, human rights, and environmental standards.
Free trade is good for America if it is "pursued properly" by giving "more attention to labor rights and environmental protection than we have in the past," Gore told undecided voters gathered at a Portsmouth, N.H., high school gym last weekend.
"The peaceful protesters were trying to make some points that I think have some validity," he said, although he added he does not share all the protesters' views.
Gore is counting heavily on unions, and to a lesser extent on environmental groups that joined the 30,000-strong anti-WTO coalition, for vital support in his presidential campaign. The AFL-CIO endorsed him in September.
In terms of contributions, organized labor is giving far more to Gore than to any other presidential candidate, according to the Center for Responsive Politics here. Equally important is union support in grass-roots canvassing. "Union members are the hands that stuff the envelopes and the voices that make the phone calls," says Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
For their part, unions are seeking to maximize their political clout with Gore by leveraging their self-proclaimed victory in Seattle's trade-talk breakdown.
"Gore ... is going to have to come to grips with what took place in Seattle," says George Becker, president of United Steelworkers of America (USWA), who helped lead protests calling for the inclusion of labor rights in trade accords.
"The vice president has to separate himself from the past policies [of President Clinton] and come out stronger on the side of working people," says Mr. Becker, whose union has endorsed Gore and represents 700,000 workers in the United States and Canada.
The show of force in Seattle is the latest in a string of union-led campaigns to block or modify free-trade agreements promoted by the Clinton-Gore administration. After winning Congress's approval for the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993 and the formation of the WTO in 1994, the administration has sought but failed to extend NAFTA to other regions or gain expedited "fast track" consideration of new trade pacts.
And new battles loom. Labor groups are at odds with the administration over major free-trade initiatives likely to come before Congress next year: Chinese membership in the WTO, lower tariffs for sub-Saharan Africa, Central America, and the Caribbean, as well as a resolution on whether the US should retain WTO membership.
"We have certain disagreements with Gore, and China's accession to the WTO is clearly a main one," says Thea Lee, international economist for the AFL-CIO. "We'll certainly be expecting a lot from [Gore] in the future."
All this could add up to a more pro-labor US trade policy, some analysts predict, citing what they believe was Mr. Clinton's willingness to allow the WTO talks to collapse rather than accept an agenda that would have alienated key Gore supporters.
Issues beyond trade
Moreover, labor pressure on Gore is unlikely to be limited to the trade arena, but will also include issues such as raising the minimum wage and reforming labor laws. Indeed, some unions are considering focusing their spending on issue advertising rather than Gore contributions, Ms. Bronfenbrenner says. Others, such as the Teamsters and United Auto Workers, are delaying endorsements.
Unions will "continue to hold [Gore's] feet to the fire," she says. "He's going to be constantly pushed to take stronger stances."
Nevertheless, while Gore may have to work harder for union support, few say he faces any risk of major defections. Among public-sector unions, which are little-affected by trade and account for almost half of America's 17 million union workers, "Gore will get probably 100 percent support," says Leo Troy of Rutgers University in Newark, N.J. Also, many union members with export-oriented jobs support free trade.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society