Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Labor Snarls Back at Clinton over NAFTA

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Labor Snarls Back at Clinton over NAFTA

Article excerpt

It had nearly the rhetorical snarl of Ronald Reagan's "evil empire" assault on the Soviet Union.

Startlingly, it was aimed at a strong ally, not a hated foe.

When President Bill Clinton said on Sunday that his administration's "big problem" on the North American Free Trade Agreement is "the raw muscle, the sort of naked pressure" labor has exerted on Democratic legislators, unions fumed.

And responded.

"The president ought to issue an apology," said Teamsters President Ron Carey. He bristled at Clinton's use of such phrases as "muscle-bound" and "roughshod" to describe union tactics, complaining that such "code words" against other groups would spark general outrage.

In a release early this week, Carey termed "particularly galling" Clinton's attack on labor for its "vociferous, organized opposition" to Democrats backing NAFTA. Carey said the White House itself was using improper means to get pro-NAFTA votes, through "one of the most blatant, shameless campaigns in recent memory to buy Congressional votes with the taxpayers' money."

Teamsters chief spokesman Matt Witt said Thursday that the White House tone on NAFTA has for weeks been patronizing.

"Clinton and (Labor Secretary Robert) Reich and other members of the Clinton administration continue to pat working people on the head and say, `Well now, we know that you're upset because you lost a lot of jobs in the past 12 years. You don't really understand what NAFTA is, and if you did you wouldn't let your unhappiness over the job loss translate into opposition to NAFTA.'

"It's not like we're not smart enough to understand what NAFTA is," Witt said. "Our response is that NAFTA is the policy of the last 12 years. NAFTA is the same trickle-down economics that voters rejected last year at the polls."

Clinton's blast reflected to some a gutsy willingness to take on a key ally, in the nation's economic interests. Others saw a desperate president hoping to shift the discussion from NAFTA's merits by making organized labor a "whipping boy."

Either way, the tactics were a calculated risk for Clinton, who seeks labor's support on other key issues such as health-care reform. …

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