Unions Use Seattle Success to Sway Gore ; Labor, Invigorated by Trade-Talk Collapse, Wants Gore to Temper

Article excerpt

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.

Renewed pressure

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. …