Reaching out to a key Democratic constituency, Vice President Al Gore on Tuesday told the AFL-CIO meeting in Los Angeles that the administration will propose new rules to strengthen organized labor’s hand in dealings with the hundreds of thousands of firms that do business with the federal government.
In a speech to the labor federation’s executive council, Gore used unusually strong language to support workers’ rights to form unions, and said the administration would seek to steer federal contracts away from firms that violate labor laws during organizing drives.
“This White House will take action to give the right to organize new teeth,” Gore told reporters after his meeting. “We are going to send a message. . . . If you want to do business with the federal government, you had better maintain a safe workplace and respect civil, human and union rights.”
Gore’s announcement came hours after House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) staked out strong opposition to one of President Clinton’s top second-term priorities: the expansion of the North American Free Trade Agreement to Chile and perhaps other South American nations.
“I believe we should not simply extend a treaty that in my view is not working properly,” Gephardt told reporters after addressing the union presidents in a closed session at the downtown Biltmore hotel.
Though both Gore and Gephardt have routinely appeared at AFL-CIO conventions, their same-day appearances Tuesday attracted extra attention because the two men are considered potential rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination in the year 2000.
In their own ways, each man testified to the importance of labor as a force in Democratic politics. Gephardt spent the entire weekend in Los Angeles meeting privately with union leaders; Gore raced here Tuesday after returning to Washington early Monday morning from his trip to South Africa.
The appearances came against a backdrop of quiet anxiety among union leaders about the administration’s direction. Though organized labor staunchly supported Clinton’s reelection last fall, privately several labor leaders said they are concerned that Clinton will concede too much in his desire to reach a balanced-budget agreement with congressional Republicans; Clinton’s desire to expand the North American Free Trade Agreement is also a red flag for most labor leaders. Moreover, many union officials were angered that Clinton intervened last weekend to block a pilots’ strike at American Airlines.
But Gore clearly turned some heads with the intensity of his defense of the right to organize; indeed, Clinton has rarely, if ever, defended the role of unions--or criticized businesses that resist them--in terms as unequivocal as Gore used Tuesday.
Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees--one of the few unions that endorsed Clinton during the 1992 Democratic primaries--said Gore’s remarks to the union council were “the most pro-worker and most pro-union speech that we’ve ever had from this administration.”
The specific policy change Gore announced Tuesday would revise procurement rules that govern the billions of dollars in federal contracts let every year. Under the proposed change, the government would formally evaluate a company’s record on labor rights, occupational safety and other workplace issues when determining which firms are eligible to bid for federal contracts.
The aim is to use the lure of federal business to encourage companies to improve their performance on those workplace issues, just as the government now seeks to promote affirmative action by requiring federal contractors to increase their recruitment of women and minorities.
This marks Clinton’s second attempt to use federal contracts to improve the environment for unions. In 1995, he signed an executive order to bar federal contracts from firms that hire permanent replacement workers during strikes; but a federal court overturned that rule as a violation of the national labor laws in 1996.
Potentially the new procurement rules could affect a vast universe of companies: between 250,000 and 300,000 companies are currently federal contractors, administration officials said. But Larry Gold, an associate general counsel at the AFL-CIO, said the impact of the proposed change--which must still go through a formal rule-making process--would largely “depend on the manner in which it is enforced.”
Some business leaders reacted with surprise and anger. “This is a reward, a plum they are offering the unions for the campaign financing in their behalf,” said Jeffrey Joseph, vice president for domestic policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “There has always been a balance between management and labor and they are trying to change it to something that favors labor.”
In addition, Gore announced, the administration also will seek to prohibit government contractors from using federal funds for the costs of resisting union organizing drives, or defending themselves against unfair-labor complaints.
While union officials warmly welcomed these initiatives, Gephardt’s appearance underscored the likelihood that Clinton--and by extension Gore--could face significant labor unrest over the administration’s desire to expand NAFTA.
In sharply worded remarks, Gephardt signaled that he would resist the administration’s push for expedited negotiating authority to extend NAFTA further into South America.
“In a way NAFTA has validated a governmental and business system that does not allow workers to have the ability to get paid and compensated for their hard work,” Gephardt told reporters.
Framing a debate that could become familiar if the two men are pit against each other in 2000, Gore defended NAFTA, saying any problems were linked to the collapse of the Mexican currency in late 1994. “My own view is when you take that into account, the impact of NAFTA has been quite positive in both Mexico and the U.S. and Canada,” Gore said.