WASHINGTON — One year ago, organized labor vowed that anyone who voted for the North American Free Trade Agreement would not win labor’s backing in elections this fall.
But legislative priorities change, and four months before voters make their choices for all 435 House seats and 34 Senate seats, labor has backed away from its threat. While anti-NAFTA lawmakers are being well supported by the unions, not all of those who voted for the treaty are being excluded.
In this election cycle through the end of May, the ILGWU has given campaign contributions to 187 candidates, including 24 incumbents who voted for NAFTA, according to reports from the Federal Election Commission.
Those contributions include $1,500 to Rep. Sam Farr (D., Calif.), $1,000 to Sen. Tom Harkin (D., Iowa), $1,000 to Sen. Charles Robb (D., Va.) $1,000 to Rep. Vic Fazio (D., Calif.), $500 to Rep. Bill Hefner (D., N.C.) and $500 to Rep. Marilyn Lloyd (D., Tenn.), former chairman of the House Textile Caucus. However, the ILGWU was more generous to those who voted against NAFTA, such as Rep. Richard Gephardt (D., Mo.), who got $6,500, the largest of the ILGWU’s contributions so far. Evelyn Dubrow, vice president and legislative director of the ILGWU, said the union continues to contribute to campaigns of NAFTA backers because it needs them on other issues. “If they have a good record on other things, we won’t try to defeat them,” she said.
The Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, according to FEC reports, has made $500 contributions to six pro-NAFTA incumbents. In all, it has given contributions to 68 candidates.
In Illinois, three incumbent House Democrats who backed NAFTA — Richard Durbin, Dan Rostenkowski and Mel Reynolds — are expected to win the endorsement of the AFL-CIO this month, because the three have favorable voting records on labor issues despite their free-trade positions, said Mike Klein, political director for the AFL-CIO in Illinois and Wisconsin.
“NAFTA was a sore spot,” Klein said, “but with time it’s healed a bit….As angry as we get about an issue, the nature of politics is that we go from issue to issue.”
Such issues as health care, an overhaul of the Occupational Safety and Health Act and labor law reform have moved to the forefront of labor’s agenda, Klein said.
In at least one case, labor worked to defeat an incumbent in an election in which NAFTA was an issue, but failed.
Mississippi Democrat Mike Parker, who has been in Congress since 1988, says he handily won the state’s June primary, in part because his opponent, Marshall Bennett, carped about Parker’s vote for NAFTA.
According to FEC records, Bennett had solid backing from labor, too, getting more than $51,000 from labor’s political action committees. That tally includes $3,000 from the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union.
Parker, on the other hand, did not get any union money, based on FEC reports. He did receive $1,000 from a PAC organized by Rep. Robert Matsui (D., Calif.), who helped the administration win votes for NAFTA.
Joe Alvarez, ACTWU political director, spent the days before the Mississippi primary vote drumming up support for Bennett, whom the union considers more liberal than Parker. Alvarez said Parker’s NAFTA vote was the primary reason for the union’s involvement in the race, and Parker’s opposition to a minimum wage hike was the second reason.