Why WTO Deal Poses a Problem for Al Gore

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Al Gore may have a lock on the votes of organized labor, but the Clinton administration's latest trade deal with China may make it harder to rouse trade union enthusiasm for electing the veep. Labor slammed the agreement Tuesday, with AFL-CIO president John Sweeney calling it a "grave mistake" and Teamsters leader James P. Hoffa denouncing it as a "slap in the face" to American and Chinese workers. Labor's hostility to the pact that all but ensures China's entry to the WTO may bode ill for Gore, who has assiduously courted labor's support since his free-trade advocacy put him on a collision course with the unions over the 1994 NAFTA agreement.

Championing a deal opposed by labor could cost Gore heavily in one of the Democratic party's key activist constituencies, but free trade remains a cornerstone of the vice president's politics. Much may hinge, then, on how Bill Bradley responds to the same issue. Buoyed by an endorsement from former Clinton administration labor secretary Robert Reich Monday, Bradley is well-placed to outflank Gore from the party's left. But the former New Jersey senator's own voting record is also solidly pro-free trade, and although he gave the agreement a qualified welcome Monday, opposing it would be an unlikely turnabout for him. Leading Republican candidates George W. Bush and John McCain gave it similarly cautious approval. So as disenchanted as the trade deal may leave labor, it's unlikely to change the voting preferences of those who wouldn't contemplate deserting the big parties for anti-free trade insurgent Pat Buchanan. But Gore needs more than just a grudging vote from labor: He needs its money spent on campaign ads endorsing his positions and its grassroots activists getting out the vote. If labor chooses to fight hard against the China deal, its enthusiasm for Gore is likely to be muted.