WASHINGTON -- Among the political shoals that candidate Bill Clinton safely navigated in his 1992 campaign was firm organized labor opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on grounds it would cause massive job losses to Mexico.
Clinton finessed the issue during what proved to be the critical Illinois and Michigan presidential primaries, where the labor vote was a key. He said he supported "free trade" in general but wanted to see the fine print of the NAFTA deal then still being negotiated by President George Bush.
Clinton won both primaries and effectively eliminated pro-business candidate Paul Tsongas from the race. In Michigan, where candidate Jerry Brown ran second to Clinton, Brown sought to draw off labor support by raising doubts about Clinton's position on NAFTA, but had only modest success.
The Arkansas governor got by with general remarks about insisting on provisions in NAFTA that would protect American jobs by requiring Mexico to impose tougher environmental and labor standards on its own industries. Without them, he said, Mexican industry would be able to flood U.S. markets with goods priced at levels American industry could not approach.
It was not until a month before the election, at a speech at North Carolina State, that Clinton formally endorsed NAFTA, while saying he would not sign it in the form the agreement by then had been shaped by the Bush administration. He said he would insist on additional provisions on environmental and labor standards that he said could be attached "without renegotiating the basic agreement."
The position was widely viewed as a politically crafty hedge, arrived at after consultations with House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, originally a strong foe of NAFTA who even now remains skeptical that it can be adjusted to safeguard U.S. workers' interests adequately.
In the end, though, most elements of organized labor swallowed hard and accepted Clinton's assurances that he would, if elected, make NAFTA palatable to them, or not agree to it.
Since then, the Clinton administration has been stroking organized labor to keep it lined up behind him on the issue. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich gathered his Labor Advisory Committee, a 17-union body headed by AFL-CIO
Secretary-Treasurer Tom Donahue, to consult with Mickey Kantor, the U.S. Trade Representative spearheading the effort to win adjustments from the Mexicans.
Rumblings of discontent are now being heard in Congress in spite of assurances from Kantor that the Clinton administration will insist on mechanisms to make sure that higher environmental and workplace standards are required by Mexican industries.
While AFL-CIO spokesman Rex Hardesty says there is no single litmus test by which his organization intends to judge Clinton, revamping NAFTA to meet labor's concerns clearly shares top billing with only a few others, including health-care reform.
While it undoubtedly is true that organized labor no longer has the political clout it enjoyed in New Deal and subsequent years, it continues to represent a very important constituency for any Democratic president.
The massive loss of blue-collar voters to Ronald Reagan and even to George Bush in 1988 -- the "Reagan Democrats" -- sharply undercut Democratic hopes in the three previous presidential elections. It was a loss that Clinton worked hard, and successfully, to reverse in 1992.
Organized labor came to support Clinton last year only warily, first backing old-line liberal Sen. Tom Harkin. Once Harkin dropped out, however, and Clinton's only remaining serious opposition was posed by Tsongas, the unions by and large went along.
Now, Hardesty notes, even NAFTA's most outspoken foe, the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU), is simply calling on Clinton to make sure that the agreement he signs is fair.
In this first major labor issue to come to a test in his administration, Clinton is getting the benefit of the doubt from organized labor, and he can't afford politically not to deliver.