Labor and the 2004 elections The view from Iowa and South Carolina

Mark Smith, president of the Iowa AFL-CIO, said his federation is not “doing much” when it comes to the 2004 election. “That comes after the AFL-CIO makes its endorsement. But some of our affiliates are busy,” he added, pointing to the May 17 forum organized by the State, County and Municipal Employees. “The purpose is to get the candidates to show what they’ve got – to get them on the record on issues important to union members. They expect over 1,000 delegates and you can bet all of the candidates will be there, too.”

Donna DeWitt, the feisty telephone worker turned president of the South Carolina AFL-CIO, agrees with Smith that economic issues will drive the 2004 elections. “People are beginning recognize that weapons of mass destruction are really weapons of ‘mass distraction.’ No matter how hard he tries, Bush will not be able to hide the economic issues. There are just so many countries he can start a fight with. When people see empty wallets their eyes open,” she said on her cell phone while driving from Columbia to Charleston.

When asked about the issues in a one, two, three order Smith said, “They are not any different here than anyplace else: healthcare, trade, jobs – the standard kind of stuff. But,” he told the World in a telephone interview, “healthcare is moving up on the list of concerns.”

Smith doubts that Bush can get away with hiding a failing economy under cover of the war against terrorism. “I think more and more people will see Bush’s military adventures are a cover for an economy that is in trouble. But there is nothing automatic about it,” he added. “Ultimately we have to get to the point where people understand that waving the flag doesn’t put food on the table.”

Smith blasted the Republican agenda that, he said, “focused on turning back every gain we have made since the 1930s. The attack is across the board – and in the final analysis states are left with two options: cutting services or raising taxes. So what happens? You starve education; you starve after-school programs and violence against women programs. You starve all kinds of social service programs.”

Smith said he was thinking of something he could give members of the legislature they “could read in 3 minutes - something from the Bible like Chapter 25 from Matthew: ‘Feed the hungry, clothe the naked.’ The Iowa Legislature recessed so that everyone could go home for Good Friday. But when they came back the Monday after Easter they kept up their attack on working families.”

DeWitt agrees with those who see South Carolina as a major battleground in the campaign win the Democratic Party presidential nomination. She also agrees with Smith that the issues are more or less the same. “Trade tops our list because we’ve lost so many jobs in the textile industry since the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect in 1995. But, as the candidate debate showed, economic issues are the common thread, with health care at the top of the list.”

DeWitt said Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich scored points with the labor delegate when he was the only candidate to mention trade in his opening remarks. She also said the question of war and peace didn’t register very high on the radar screen although “there was an obvious contrast” between Kucinich and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.)

A resolution adopted by the AFL-CIO Executive Council says the federation will “remain neutral” with regard to candidates for president and vice-president until its General Board makes an endorsement. Until then it will “treat all announced candidates with equal consideration.” The resolution adds the AFL-CIO “will provide forums for the candidates to address issues of concern to working families … Until the AFL-CIO acts, state federations and central labor councils may not endorse candidates for these offices.”

The resolution urges its affiliates to refrain from endorsing presidential candidates until the federation “is prepared to consider this question.”

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