David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Labor Support For Clinton Hits a Rock: Oil Union Leader Criticizes the Administration's Indifference to Workers
by David Bacon

DENVER (3/5/96) - While President Clinton appeared to be greeted with unrestrained enthusiasm at the AFL-CIO convention last fall in New York, support for his reelection among its 16 million members is less than a sure thing.

At the convention, outgoing federation president Tom Donahue, and incoming reformer John Sweeney, united to acclaim Bill Clinton labor's candidate. Delegates took to their feet to applaud him. Labor Secretary Robert Reich received a similar endorsement, hailed as labor's man in the administration.

Yet when the AFL-CIO's new leaders scheduled a special meeting in January of its newly-expanded executive council, with the purpose of making an unprecedented early endorsement of the president, the meeting was suddenly called off a week beforehand.

The appearance of deep-going support at the convention was deceptive. Few AFL-CIO convention delegates were rank-and-file workers. Most came from union staff, appointed by international union officers committed to the Democratic Party and its candidates. It was not a likely forum for calls for a more independent approach to electoral politics.

Great care also was taken in New York to avoid open confrontation over the most bitter issues which have divided labor and the Clinton administration for three years. NAFTA was hardly mentioned, and had no place on the official program. There were no denunciations of the failure to win national healthcare. Weak administration support for the bill banning striker replacement, despite a Democratic Congress at the time, was covered by praise for Clinton's executive order banning the practice for federal contractors. That order, which was never enforced, was recently overturned in federal court. The Republicans were blamed for the Team Act, a proposal to weaken legal prohibitions on company unions. But the proposal had its origin in the Dunlop Commission, created by Reich's own Labor Department.

Presidential triumphalism at the convention belied the fact a number of national union leaders have become increasingly critical of labor's relation to the president, and to the national Democratic Party. The concerns they raise, and the obvious lackluster support for the president among rank-and-file union members, ultimately made early endorsement too controversial to put on the table, almost a year before the election.

"At the end of the day we may well be faced with a decision about whether we should support Bill Clinton, as opposed to a number of other people we couldn't support in a million years," says Bob Wages, president of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union. "But that's different from the question of when we should endorse him, and what conditions we should put on the process."

Wages says he would urge people to reconsider the early endorsement.

He'll have the chance to make that argument again at the end of March. AFL-CIO president John Sweeney has scheduled another, expanded meeting of the federation's leadership to make endorsements.

Wages' union, OCAW, represents about 100,000 U.S. workers, mostly at oil refineries belonging to some of the world's largest corporations. Like many unions, it is a victim of the new corporate practice of shedding workers by the thousand while posting record profits. Last year Exxon made $30.9 billion in profit, while cutting 18,000 jobs in the last five years, 17 percent of its workforce. Chevron made $10.2 billion while cutting 9000 jobs. Mobil made $10.8 billion, and cut 8,800 jobs. OCAW just concluded contract negotiations with the industry. Its goal, only partly achieved, was greater job security in a political atmosphere that treats corporate profits as sacred, and jobs as expendable.

If oil workers were the only ones confronting this dilemma, Wages' criticism of the Clinton administration might be written off. But AT&T, in a banner profit year, just announced the elimination of 42,000 workers from its payroll. In industry after industry, union after union, the picture is the same.

At the heart of his criticism of the Clinton administration are the president's economic policies, which Wages says are modeled on the old adage from the 1950s, that what's good for General Motors is good for the country. Pointing to the recent budget negotiations with the Republicans, Wages accuses Clinton of often proposing a less extreme version of conservative ideas, including increasing Medicaid costs on the elderly, eliminating legal immigrants from Social Security, and supporting a capital gains tax cut.

"I don't hear him talking about cutting corporate welfare. I don't hear him talking about issues that would resonate with working people," he says. He calls the president's position in the long-running tug-of-war over the budget and the government shutdowns "more posturing than substance."

The big crime in Wages' book is the continued support by a Democratic administration of the free trade proposals that were the hallmark of the Reagan-Bush years. The Clinton agenda on trade was largely a product of the Democratic Leadership Council, and centered on support for NAFTA and GATT. The party's program itself was written by "new Democrats," including Fritz Hollings, Roy Roehmer and Richard Selby.

The common theme advocated by this group is that the party must compete with Republicans for swing voters in an ever smaller electorate. To do this, they say, it must move to the right, away from its traditional constituency of unions, racial minorities, women and liberals. The Democratic Party platform for the 1992 election didn't even mention the word union.

Many unionists viewed the platform and the ascendancy of the DLC as a prelude to the support the administration later gave to NAFTA, GATT, and other measures that eliminated thousands of jobs. "Bill Clinton and the 'new Democrats' are internationalists," Wages asserts. "They believe in global capital's ability to move, to free up markets, to produce goods and services and bring them back into the United States. They say that creates healthy competition."

The problem, according to Wages, is that the administration is in denial over the tremendous loss of jobs, and the erosion of wages, caused by free market economics. At a press conference during the New York convention, Reich was asked to comment on figures compiled by his own department, which certified the loss of over 35,000 jobs as a result of NAFTA. Most observers believe the real job loss figure is several times this amount. Reich, however, asserted that the agreement had created 140,000 jobs in 1994 alone.

"The man's delusional," Wages laughs. "There can be no honest argument by this administration or by Secretary Reich that NAFTA has been good for this country. And the worker electorate sees that its economic interests are not being protected. People wake up every day worried about their jobs. Bill Clinton can't expect American workers to understand an economic policy which puts their jobs at risk for trade advantages in foreign countries. Not when he's unwilling to take on corporate welfare, even as defined by his own administration. He thinks somehow he can out-Republican Newt and the boys. I don't think he can."

As a result, he says, workers vent their anger in the voting booth. They react to the hot-button issues put forward by conservative ideologues, such as anti-immigrant hysteria and gun control. "[Workers] start gravitating to the issues of the Republican Right and fall victim to them, because we're not having an honest debate about our future," Wages says.

And that's the problem he sees with the early endorsement. "An endorsement doesn't mean anything if we can't deliver people," Wages declares. "We can't deliver people on the economic policies this administration represents. The test here isn't whether or not unions are going to endorse Bill Clinton. It's whether unions can put millions of people on the street working for him, and get them to the polls to vote for him. That's the issue."

As an alternative, Wages wants the AFL-CIO to draw up its own program - an economic agenda on issues like jobs, tax policy, campaign financing and healthcare. With that agenda in hand, the federation should demand an economic summit with the president, and presumably some commitment to changing current policies. "We are a principal constituency," he would remind Clinton. "If we can't get an economic summit with him, we should tell everyone where we stand in regard to his agenda."

Wages recognizes that many people in the top levels of the AFL-CIO want to downplay differences with Clinton in the interest of ensuring the president's reelection and the defeat of Gingrich Republicans. In addition, he notes that Clinton has made some moves on issues he describes as "institutional" needs of various unions. Those include better appointments to the National Labor Relations Board, and commitment to the Davis-Bacon Act (protecting prevailing wages on federal contracts), and the Occupational Safety and Health Act. But to union leaders who argue that Clinton has delivered the goods, he says "there's a difference between whether Bill Clinton has supported some of the institutional needs of unions, and whether or not he embraces an economic policy which benefits working men and women."

The oil workers union is one of the few that have endorsed Labor Party Advocates - the effort to explore establishing a labor party. A founding convention is set for June in Cleveland. Other LPA endorsers include the International Longshoremens' and Warehousemens' Union, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees (a railroad union) and the independent United Electrical Workers, along with numerous union locals and labor councils.

Within LPA, some voices call for a party which would immediately nominate and run candidates for the November general election. Wages, however, sees LPA more as a vehicle through which rank-and-file union members and activists can participate in framing the economic agenda he advocates, and build up pressure from below for a more independent approach to electoral politics.

Especially on international trade issues, he also recognizes that within the AFL-CIO itself, there are contradictions between its criticism of free trade, and support for U.S. foreign policy. The federation's International Affairs Department, through the Free Trade Union Institute, spends over $40 million each year on programs in other countries. These programs are funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the National Endowment for Democracy, and have as their goal the creation of a favorable climate for U.S. investment.

"How can we take substantial sums of money in order to promote American investment overseas," Wages asks, "and yet we are critical of international trade policy as it's been defined by this and previous administrations." He carefully notes that he doesn't oppose international trade on principle, "but where you have an open agenda to promote American investment, and that investment destroys American manufacturing jobs, we have a problem."

Under the cloak of the cold war, the International Affairs Department has had a long history of undermining unions unfriendly to U.S. foreign policy goals or U.S. corporate investment, calling them communist or anti-American. In Wages view, the result was often the creation of alternative unions he calls "captives of the corporate culture." In OCAW's own battles with the oil multinationals, he says he's often found more cooperation from unions the IAD opposed.

The operation," he says, "ought to deal with global capital and its power," and "solidify relationships with trade unions in other countries in our mutual interest," including mutual aid and support pacts.

While raising these questions puts Wages at one end of the spectrum of political opinion within the AFL-CIO, he isn't alone. Jack Henning, head of the California Labor Federation, also thinks that, while Clinton's eventual endorsement may be inevitable, it should come at a price. "No blank check, please," he says. "The president should be informed that the wounds of NAFTA were still open to millions of American workers in the disastrous November elections of 1994. Blind political devotion is not a worker habit."

Wages believes that "anyone who deals with corporate America day in and day out will privately agree with everything I've said, and many [labor leaders] do. I sit in meetings and articulate these things, and people nod their heads. The question is, how do you move from agreement to action in response to it."

Does such sharp questioning cut him off from a good relationship with the White House and the Democratic Party? He doesn't seem to care. "I'm not consumed by whether my institutional concern gets proper response from the administration if working men and women are getting shafted out in the real world. The problem is, the average working stiffs are lost in all this. My job, as I see it, is to try to say what they're thinking and what they're feeling. And if people don't like that, tough shit."

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