Rep. Melissa Bean from Illinois might vote for CAFTA—but she could face the wrath of labor if she does. As will other Democratic members of Congress who vote for the Central American Free Trade Agreement, if a small but growing movement among union presidents takes hold. It’s about time.
I’ve argued for a long time that we need to be much tougher on Democrats who take checks from unions and get troops on Election Day, and, then, turn around to support corporate legislation like so-called “free trade” agreements. The media has focused on how the current political fight within labor might hurt the Democratic Party. But, hell, the party is about to hurt itself.
Yesterday, a group of 20 presidents of AFL-CIO unions sent a letter to the leadership of the House, expressing barely concealed anger that several Democratic Party members of Congress appear ready to vote for CAFTA when it comes to a vote, perhaps as early as tomorrow. Giving the letter even more heft, it is signed by a “bi-partisan” group of presidents—meaning presidents from unions on both sides of the internal political struggle.
The person who organized the letter is Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters who was the most visible, early supporter of John Kerry. To his credit, he could have argued that his members aren’t directly touched by CAFTA. But, he sees this as a huge fight.
What burns Schaitberger most, as you can see from the letter, is that he and a few other union leaders had just hosted a fundraiser for some of the most vulnerable Democratic members (the so-called “Frontline Candidates”). Here at the AFL-CIO convention in Chicago, in the bowels of the Navy Pier, I spoke to him. “We had just, a week ago, a very few of us initiated a major fundraising effort…to raise money specifically for these ten, highly targeted members that the leadership has asked us to afford special attention and support. We raised $300,000, we maxed out on every one of those members. And, then we find out three days later that two of them appears have indicated are for CAFTA."
Schaitberger continues: "I said no way. They have the right to cast a vote and make a political decision but the leadership doesn’t have the right to put them in a special category and then ask us for a special effort on our behalf and, then, they are going to go against a core issue of the labor movement. We can no longer give a pass on these issues."
So, I asked him, will the AFL-CIO finally cut off the spigot for any Democrat who goes south on CAFTA--and perhaps even field primary opponents for those wayward Dems. “A Democrat who votes for CAFTA, if we haven’t already given them money, will not get a dollar from us. We have to decide how egregious the [behavior is]. I point out Melissa’s (Bean) position, she would not be in this Congress if it were not for the labor movement. And, then, to potentially cast such a crucial vote I think is unconscionable. And I would be able to do whatever it takes to hold them accountable. This is a bright line issue for labor. "
As he looked at the letter in my hand, he noticed that Rep. Bill Jefferson from Lousiana, was not on the letter but should have been along with Bean, Jim Matheson of Utah and Dennis Moore of Kansas.
Earlier, Rich Trumka, the Federation’s secretary-treasurer had some pretty strong language, too. “This is a very important issue for us. NAFTA is a failed model and CAFTA is a continuation of that failed model. We will look at very, very, very seriously at anyone who votes for CAFTA. I can’t imagine us supporting anybody who votes for it because it’s so bad.”
I’ve heard more rumblings a bit over the past few days. Gerry McEntee, the chair of the Federation’s political committee who I’m hoping to speak to later, made a reference to withholding support from legislators who go over to the dark side on CAFTA during the Sweeney rally on Sunday.
Finally, and this might push people over the edge, I heard that Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, is helping round up a few votes for CAFTA. He has told people that because of his leadership position, he can’t vote for the legislation but he’ll round up votes in favor. No surprise here—when Emanuel served a top aide to Bill Clinton, he helped in the push to pass NAFTA.