WASHINGTON -- Barely five years ago, Democratic presidential candidate Dick Gephardt struggled under the label "protectionist" as a result of his campaign for tougher trade policies toward Japan. He got so frustrated that at one point he blurted out that if being a protectionist meant standing up for American workers against unfair foreign trade practices, "then I'm a protectionist."
Gephardt's tough position toward Japan sat well with organized labor, but not well enough to win the endorsement of either the AFL-CIO or the United Auto Workers, critical to his chances, especially in Michigan, where his fading 1988 campaign finally collapsed. Big labor had put its chips on Walter Mondale in 1984 and lost and was unwilling to sign on with a candidate who didn't look like a sure winner.
Today, as House majority leader, Gephardt is a cautious advocate of free trade with Mexico. While attempting to shepherd through the House the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that is anathema to American labor, he continues to insist that it be stiffened to meet the concerns of labor and environmentalists. The key for him, and for many other Democrats fearful of the political ramifications of a vote that Ross Perot and labor say will result in a massive loss of American jobs to Mexico, is the ability of the Clinton administration to negotiate side agreements on tougher environmental and labor standards for Mexican industry.
U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor has been down in Mexico this week working to get agreements imposing stronger standards that will satisfy Gephardt and make it possible for him in turn to sell NAFTA to its critics in Congress and organized labor. According to one Democrat close to the effort, Kantor won't "get enough from Mexico to ever sell NAFTA to the AFL-CIO," but the hope is he can make the treaty sufficiently palatable with the side agreements to reduce labor's role as an aggressive opponent to congressional approval.
Rex Hardesty, an AFL-CIO spokesman, notes that the organization's Labor Advisory Council has already dismissed Kantor's efforts to date as "nothing but window dressing" that fails to satisfy any of the Federation's 21 points of concern on NAFTA spelled out in February. The prospect, Hardesty says, is that the AFL-CIO will stage an all-out drive to mobilize its 'N membership along the lines of "Don't Send My Job to Mexico" when the trade agreement comes before Congress in the fall.
Gephardt himself remains as firm as ever in insisting that to win his support the side agreements must truly bring about enforcement of higher environmental and labor standards in Mexican industry that will reduce the huge competitive edge it now has in the labor market. The weak standards now in existence make it possible for Mexican employers to hire workers at a dollar an hour. In addition, Gephardt notes, such wages inevitably increase the flow of illegal Mexican immigration into the United States in numbers U.S. immigration officials are helpless to stop.
The majority leader frankly acknowledges deep doubts that American labor can be brought around on NAFTA, and he says that Perot's vocal opposition to "the sucking sound" of jobs being pulled south of the border doesn't help.
A particular dilemma for Gephardt if stronger side agreements are negotiated, he concedes, is holding onto Republican support for NAFTA while winning over Democrats opposed to it without the side agreements. With as many as two-thirds of the House Democrats against NAFTA, a strong Republican vote will be critical when the issue comes to the House floor.
The administration is shooting for agreement on stronger environmental and labor standards to submit to Congress by Aug. 6, with the matter then coming up for debate after the summer recess. One administration insider says the vote must come by the end of this year, when NAFTA is slated to go into effect, to have any realistic prospect of congressional approval.
But right now, the outcome is very much in doubt, with Gephardt looking for side agreements strong enough first of all to convince himself that American workers won't become the victims, so that he can make the fight for the president with the conviction it will need.