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The Labor of Elections: A Look At the Democratic Candidates, Union Support and Labor Issues From Iraq to the U.S.

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“Super Seven” gets underway today with voters in Arizona, Delaware, Missouri, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma and South Carolina heading to polls and caucuses to pick a Democratic presidential nominee. We speak with two labor experts about some of the labor issues in the 2004 elections. [Includes transcript]

Voters in seven states across the country will be picking a Democrat presidential nominee today in the biggest day of the 2004 campaign so far.

Primaries or caucuses open in Arizona, Delaware, Missouri, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma and South Carolina. The “Super Seven,” as they are called, are seen as more of a national test for candidates than the earlier votes in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Senator John Kerry won both those state contests and is seen as the front-runner to be selected to face President Bush in the presidential election in November. Polls suggest Kerry is in the lead or very close in all seven states.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Terence McAuliffe has said he plans to urge every candidate who fails to win today to pack up.

Senator John Edwards is betting his candidacy on South Carolina and told the Washington Post that if he loses the state primary to Kerry he will quit the race. Edwards is reported to have spent more time in South Carolina than any of the other candidates apart from the Rev. Al Sharpton who may get a boost to his campaign from the large proportion of African-Americans in the state.

Meanwhile, Kerry and Edwards got a boost to their campaigns with a new CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll shows Kerry defeating Bush in a presidential election by 53 percent to 46 percent, and Edwards winning 49 to 48 percent.

Meanwhile, Howard Dean has largely written off winning any state today except New Mexico and is preparing for what he calls a final showdown with Kerry in Wisconsin on Feb. 17. This according to the Washington Post.

This week, Dean’s campaign, which has severely cut back on spending, laid off more than a dozen staffers who worked at headquarters and out in the field.

And Wesley Clark is looking to break through today with his first win in Oklahoma, where polls show him in a virtual tie with Kerry. The Post reports that if Clark goes winless today, he will most likely drop out.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman and Rep. Dennis Kucinich are also still in the race.

  • David Bacon, veteran labor journalist who writes for a number of publications, including The Nation, The Progressive and the Pacifica News Service. He is also a programmer on Pacifica station KPFA in Berkeley. He has a new book out called “The Children of NAFTA
  • Clarence Thomas, former Secretary-Treasurer of the San Francisco Longshore Union during the lockout in November 2002. With David Bacon, he was in Baghdad late last year investigating worker and labor conditions there.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Clarence Thomas, let’s begin with you. Can you talk about the primaries today from the perspective of labor?

CLARENCE THOMAS: Well, first of all, I just wanted to make one quick correction. I’m a past secretary-treasurer of Local 10. Thanks for having me on the show. With regards to the primaries, I think that it’s important to make clear that the rank and file of various unions around the country are very concerned about issues concerning the national health care, national living wage, jobs, and to stop the attacks on labor. I think that what has happened is that you’ve have had a scenario where the typical kinds of endorsements have been made by labor leaders for various candidates, but the bottom line is not the candidate. the bottom line is the agenda. And so, workers need to mobilize, get out on the street, and not so much support the Democratic frontrunner, but let the Democratic frontrunner know what our concerns are. Because it is not about the candidate–it is about the agenda. And now is the time to address that agenda.

AMY GOODMAN: David Bacon, on the issue of labor support for the candidate. In Iowa, Congress member Gephardt had a lot of labor behind him. What has happened to that support?

DAVID BACON: Well, I’m not sure that the unions that supported Gephardt have made a decision about where to go next. I think they’re kind of watching what’s happening in the primaries today and the ones to come. And it is a pleasure to be here with you this morning, Amy and to be on Democracy Now!

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you.

DAVID BACON: I think Clarence is absolutely right. The effect that labor has had on the elections… actually, I think labor has had a big effect on the Democratic candidates. Just two examples. Labor is proposing a reform of the…of the nation’s labor laws that would make it much more…much easier for workers to organize union protect the rights of workers, penalize employers who fire workers in the course of organizing drives. Before the primary season started, the AFL-CIO and workers from a number of different organizing drives interviewed the candidates. The candidates appeared for interviews. Workers told their stories how they were victimized by employers and fired during organizing campaigns. As a result of that, every Democratic party candidate now supports labor law reform. I can’t remember, I think it must have been Carter when the last proposal for labor law reform was in congress, and I don’t think that the primary candidates, even in that election year, all supported that proposal. But this time, all of the Democratic party candidates have announced that they do. Trade is another one. Even Kerry, the frontrunner, for instance, voted in favor of fast track negotiating authority under Clinton, to give Clinton the authority to extend NAFTA to the countries of Latin America, what is now the Free Trade Area of the Americas proposal that Bush is pushing. But Kerry along with the other Democratic party candidates have announced that they favor including labor rights and environmental protections in the future trade agreements, and we have two candidates, Kucinich and dean who say they would actually renegotiate NAFTA, if they were elected. And finally, the issue of peace. I think it’s very significant that we have two unions, The American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, and the Service Employees International Union who supported dean overwhelmingly, because of dean’s stand on the war. I think the unions are pushing an anti-war agenda, and they want the Democratic party candidate to take a firm position in opposition to the war partly because of the effect of the war on social services in this country, and the enormous cuts that are going on in social services because of the huge expense of the war. And those unions have, I think, through their support for the Dean candidacy have in a way influenced the other candidates and forced them also to take a much stronger position in opposition to the war than they would have done otherwise.

AMY GOODMAN: We were just talking last week with my co-host Juan Gonzalez about Dennis Rivera, head of 1199 SCIU Service Employees International Union here in New York, a very influential labor leader, how he had earlier supported Dean in New Hampshire. There was SCIU organizers everywhere along with other labor activists, and now he is reconsidering. Of course, nothing succeeds like success. When someone is falling behind, he is, even as his people are out there organizing for Dean, he is saying he is stepping back from that support. Clarence Thomas.

CLARENCE THOMAS: I think that one of the reasons for Dean’s message resonating with labor is because of the fact that people realize that war is bad for working people. You have the profiteers of war, which are the Bechtel’s, the Halliburton’s, the Kellogg, browns and roots, when it is the children of the working class. And that’s the situation. But I think that what’s happening right now is that the focus seems to be more on the economy. But there is a direct relationship between foreign policy and the domestic agenda, but I do think that there is a difficult situation for those that came out too early for Dean.

AMY GOODMAN: You both took a trip to Iraq looking at labor conditions there. David Bacon, can you describe what you found?

DAVID BACON: We found the Bush administration enforcing laws from Saddam Hussein’s era that make unions illegal for almost all Iraqi workers. Saddam Hussein issued a law in 1987 that prohibited unions for workers in the public sector in Iraq, that also includes the factories, the ports, the railroads, the oil wells, etc. And not only that, Paul Bremer, the head of the coalition provisional authority issued another order in June in which he threatened that anybody advocating anything that leads to civil disorder will be taken prisoner under the Geneva convention and in fact arrests of Iraqi trade unionists have taken place. So, what we found on the ground is on the one hand, Iraqi workers are organizing unions. They are in spite of this prohibition trying to force up the miserable wages that they’re being paid right now, $60 a month with Bremer even issuing a wage order, lowering the $60 a month minimum wage to $40 a month. And workers are organizing in spite of that, but they’re doing it in the face of a decision by the occupation authority to continue making unions illegal for workers.

AMY GOODMAN: Back here at home, we just ran an interview yesterday with Congress member Dennis Kucinich who has taken a very strong stand on Iraq, saying U.S Out–UN In, as well as labor agreements here at home, or trade agreements from NAFTA to the world trade organization, which he says he would call for the disbanding of and go back to bilateral agreements. What do you think of that?

CLARENCE THOMAS: I think that the W.T.O. is a very non-Democratic organization and I would agree with congressman Kucinich and his assessment. As a longshoreman, trade is very important to our industry, but we have always advocated fair trade, not free trade. Trade agreements, that are respectful of workers in terms of international standards for workers, no violation of environmental laws, no violation of child labor laws, and it has to respect sovereignty of nations.

DAVID BACON: When you look, Amy, at what the actual record is of NAFTA, in the last ten years, and NAFTA is now ten years old as of January 1 of this year, you see that it was a really bad deal for workers on both sides of the border. Workers in the U.S. lost, according to the Department of Labor itself, over 500,000 jobs. In fact, the Bush administration stopped counting the number of jobs that were lost in November of 2002 because the statistics had become so embarrassing. But next can workers lost, too. The wage for a Mexilodoro worker was $4.50 a day, approximately, when NAFTA was passed. It’s $4.50 a day now. They didn’t go up. You cannot live on that. It costs somebody who buys a gallon of milk, a factory worker who buys a gallon of milk in Tijuana, it costs about $3 for that gallon of milk. Somebody has to work in the factory maybe six hours or seven hours simply in order to buy a gallon of milk for their children. Mexican workers did not profit by this one either, but large corporations did. And the idea that…NAFTA was sold to us with this idea that it could include a separate agreement of labor protections in which workers could complain if their rights to organize independent unions were being violated. That proved to be a bankrupt idea, too.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, how significant is the Bush administration’s rewriting of the nation’s overtime laws with the labor department itself listing several ways employers can avoid paying overtime to low wage workers?

DAVID BACON: Well, it affects at least 8 million workers. The Bush administration said that it would only affect maybe 600,000 to 700,000 workers. The Economic Policy Institute did a study in which they actually calculated the number of people who would be affected. It proved to be many, many, many times more than that. People who would be written out of the protection of overtime law in general. Remember, you know you played the song, Amy, at the beginning of the hour, which was really all about the fight for the eight-hour day. What Bush is doing is eliminating the eight-hour day for millions of workers to start out with by just writing them out of the coverage of the law. But he doesn’t intend to stop there. You know, the eight-hour day itself, I think, is under threat for all workers because of the attitude that the Bush administration has taken.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both very much for joining us. We have been joined by David Bacon, a veteran labor journalist, and Clarence Thomas. If word gets back to the Supreme Court that Clarence Thomas was here, well, I don’t know what they’ll do, but it is a pleasure to have you in our studio. Clarence Thomas, former secretary-treasurer of the San Francisco Longshore Union, was at the lockout in November, 2002. Thanks very much for joining us.

CLARENCE THOMAS: Thanks for having us.

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