Candidate ripped over Right To Work

Former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) has made support for and from organized labor one of the centerpieces of his 2008 presidential campaign, but some labor officials say Edwards is new to their cause and the former senator’s rhetoric is at odds with his record.

With the Democratic candidates set to debate Thursday night in Nevada, a state where labor still carries considerable clout, Edwards’s rivals and the unions backing them are criticizing the former senator’s past support for issues that are anathema to the labor community.

Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), in a speech to the United Auto Workers (UAW) in Iowa this week, aimed at both of his chief rivals. After hitting Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) for her past support of NAFTA, he took an indirect shot at Edwards, saying: “When a candidate says he opposes right-to-work laws or trade rules that hurt workers today, ask him where he’s been before.”

In 1998, while running for the Senate, Edwards did not come out in favor of repealing right-to-work laws in North Carolina, and he has only opposed a national right-to-work law. While North Carolina is hardly considered to be a labor stronghold, the former senator’s record and his relationship with some unions in the state were used by some unions to judge him as unworthy of an endorsement.

The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), which endorsed Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.), said Edwards’s unwillingness to advocate a repeal of the right-to-work measure was a sticking point for the membership when it was seriously considering supporting the former senator’s bid.

“How do you walk picket lines and be for right-to-work?” Jeffrey Zack, an IAFF official, said. “It’s surprising that it wasn’t disconcerting to more people.

“Ultimately, at the end of the day, it’s results. It’s not what you say. It’s results.”

Edwards has also come under fire for his support for normalizing trade relations with China after he was elected to the Senate and for voting for fast-track authority for the president. Edwards has said since that he regrets both votes, and Wednesday he told the UAW in Iowa that he would reverse trade policies.

Members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) were clearly impressed with Edwards when he addressed the group this summer, but members from North Carolina and his past positions on trade and right-to-work were ultimately what led them to endorse Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) instead, officials said.

“He walked out of there completely convinced he had our endorsement,” IAM official Rick Sloan said. “What he failed to realize was the jury was still out.

“I think he makes an exceptional closing argument. If that was all the jury ever heard, he’d win every time. But it’s not.”

Sloan said Edwards appeared to be “the natural for us,” but the former senator made some missteps with the North Carolina IAM members who worked to elect him, and his support for normalizing trade with China and right-to-work in his home state cost him.

“These days he’s sounding like Johnny Tremain helping a modern-day Paul Revere going around saying, ‘The Chinese are coming, the Chinese are coming,’ ” Sloan said. “Well, they are — by his gold-plated invitation.”

Sloan added that in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, IAM members who worked for U.S. Air in Charlotte, N.C., were losing their jobs in the wake of lost revenues and corporate cutbacks.

“When our guys were getting laid off after 9/11, he came down and met with the company” instead of the workers, Sloan said.

“Our guys in North Carolina worked really hard to get him there and then didn’t see much of him,” Sloan said, adding that the right-to-work issue is “the highest priority for the labor movement.”

It’s hardly unusual for campaign surrogates, labor officials included, to hit rival candidates for their past records, and a senior adviser to the Edwards campaign says this is a clear example of distorting Edwards’s record.

The senior adviser, familiar with Edwards’s labor outreach, said the former senator’s opposition to right-to-work, while “factually correct,” doesn’t take into account the state’s political atmosphere. North Carolina is a state with a small union presence, and Edwards served at a time the adviser described as “the Jesse Helms era.”

“The reality was it was just accepted fact, accepted by Democrats and accepted by labor, that that law could not be challenged [then and there],” the official said. “If you can find me a different answer from a Democrat on that issue [from that time], I’d really like to meet them.”

On the China issue, the adviser said Edwards was facing a lot of pressure from both the agricultural and technology sectors after the state’s manufacturing base had been shattered by NAFTA. Edwards acknowledged at the time, “There are people who might be hurt by this,” according to a report in his home-state newspaper, and early this year he said he would not support the same policy he voted for in 2000.

The adviser went on to say that Edwards continues to enjoy good relationships with labor groups in North Carolina, and “it’s almost surreal” that some of the same groups that were punished by NAFTA during and since the Clinton administration are supporting Sen. Clinton’s bid.

“[President Clinton] drove the train on NAFTA and China,” the adviser said.

Sen. Clinton has said she thinks NAFTA and other trade agreements should be revisited, but she has repeatedly come under fire for supporting them in the past.

Obama has also received some criticism from the IAM, and has lagged far behind his top rivals in union endorsements.

All of the leading Democratic challengers have received high ratings from labor groups through their time in the Senate, and unions have been divided in their endorsements.

Edwards is currently leading the way, as the national and state unions that have endorsed him represent more than 3.1 million members. He scored a big win by picking up the support of several state chapters of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), including the all-important first state of Iowa.

Clinton has also received some significant national endorsements, including most recently the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Obama has not received as much support, but he has picked up the backing of some state chapters of the SEIU.


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