Image: Barack Obama
Mel Evans  /  AP
Democratic presidential contender Sen. Barack Obama mulls over a question from a union member at an AFL-CIO voter forum Monday in Trenton, N.J.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 5/15/2007 12:59:45 PM ET 2007-05-15T16:59:45

In 1988 it was Dick Gephardt surging to the lead in the Democratic presidential fray with television ads bashing the South Korean Hyundai Motor Co. and the Seoul government for restricting sales of Chryslers in Korea.

In 1996 the buzz word was “downsizing.” Republican contender Pat Buchanan parlayed that issue and his screed against NAFTA into a startling upset victory in the New Hampshire primary.

For the 2008 race, "globalization" and “off-shoring” are the in-vogue terms to denote what union members fear most.

But voters who belong to unions always seem to get their hopes up early in the presidential cycle only to have them dashed in the long run.

Sen. Barack Obama played suitor to organized labor at an AFL-CIO forum Monday at the War Memorial in Trenton, N.J., and for some in the audience, the issue was trust.

Although unemployment stands at a remarkably low 4.5 percent, union members complained in their questions to Obama about the cost of health insurance, the fear of low-wage competition from other countries and the difficulty of getting bosses to agree to union representation for workers.

One who got to pose a question to Obama was Mike Ruffey, a member of the Steelworkers Local 7493, who works as a warehouseman in Perth Amboy, N.J.

His employer, Gerdau Ameristeel, recently laid off 130 people as it shifted some manufacturing to Brazil.

Can any president stop such economic trends?

“They have to stop promising; they have to start acting, that’s the thing,” said Ruffey, after hearing Obama.

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Who brought about ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement that organized labor so passionately fought?

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“It was President Clinton,” Ruffey said after the forum had ended. “Who do you trust? Where do you go? You’ve got to hold them (politicians) to what they tell you.”

In his query to Obama, Ruffey told the Illinois Democrat that NAFTA and the Central America Free Trade Agreement had cost American workers “hundreds of thousands of jobs.”

Ruffey asked, “How can you ensure a fair trade policy to protect American jobs?”

Obama replied, “Let’s all acknowledge that to some degree globalization is here.…  The world is smaller than it used to be.”

He added, “When we negotiate trade deals, we’ve got to make sure there are strong labor and environmental provisions in those trade deals. They’ve got to be enforceable. You’ve got to be able to go to the WTO (World Trade Organization) and say labor provisions are not being enforced.”

Last week House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel and the Bush administration clinched a deal that will allow some pending bilateral trade pacts to move forward with some additional protections for the rights of foreign workers.

But Obama sounded wary of this deal: “We haven’t actually seen the details…. I want to wait and see what exactly the language is” and make sure the union provisions are strong and enforceable.

In this state, members of union households accounted for one-third of the electorate last November. In a Democratic primary, that percentage is likely to be significantly larger.

And next year the state holds its presidential primary on Feb. 5, one of the “Tsunami Tuesday” contests that could determine who the Democratic nominee is.

Union members in New Jersey know they matter in the 2008 presidential contest.

Obama vows labor-friendly presidency
In a steady and predictable performance without any surprises in it, Obama hit all the right notes for the Trenton crowd, endorsing the right to unionize and to use a “card check” system to choose union representation rather than going through a secret ballot as now required by federal law. 

He vowed to appoint people sympathetic to unions to the National Labor Relations Board, the arbiter of workplace disputes.

“It’s been a long time since we had a president who stood up and said unions are good thing,” he noted. “It’s been a long time since we had a president who said workers are not getting their fair share.”

Obama pleased United Food and Commercial Workers member Kathy Wilder with his answer to her question, “What are your intentions about Wal-Mart?”

“I won’t shop there,” he promised and urged the company to share more of its profits with its employees.

Asked after the forum whether Sen. Hillary Clinton’s service on the Wal-Mart board of directors some 20 years ago would be a liability for her, Wilder said, “Yeah, it should be problem.”

A gray-haired man in the back row of the crowd of 1,200 nodded in assent as Obama discussed the 1968 Memphis garbage workers strike, the event that drew the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to that city, where he was assassinated.

The Memphis garbage collecters “eventually won the right to unionize, and they eventually won a contract,” Obama said.

Jobs that can be off-shored and those that can’t
Picking up trash in Memphis is one job that can’t be off-shored to Brazil or China.

The garbage worker’s job may be more secure than the steelworker’s, the textile worker’s or that of the customer service representative for a telecom company.

It was noteworthy at the AFL-CIO forum that of the unionized workers who got to pose questions to Obama, all except one were in non-“off-shore-able” jobs: a casino worker from Caesars hotel in Atlantic City, a technician for the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, a cashier at a Pathmark supermarket, a teacher in the Newark public schools and a worker at Verizon.

Only Ruffey, the warehouseman in Perth Amboy, represented the workers whose jobs could be sent off to Brazil.

Obama implied or promised that in an Obama presidency there would be more spending on public education, more spending on roads and other infrastructure, and a program of helping companies with “re-insurance” of their sickest and most costly employees.

He also vowed that “by the end of my first term we will have national health care.”

One unasked question at Tuesday’s AFL-CIO forum was, how does America produce the wealth to pay for the things that Obama promises to deliver?

If high-wage jobs once done in New Jersey are outsourced to other nations, there are fewer high-wage earners to tax.

While not addressing that issue, Obama did point to one source of money for new road, bridge and tunnel projects: “Resources could have gone into building infrastructure” in the United States, he said, but instead “went to Iraq.”

His crowd-pleasing answer was followed up with a promise to withdraw most U.S. troops from Iraq.

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