They were dressed in T-shirts and hard hats, armed with placards, bumper stickers and phone lists and sent off into a last weekend of battle with the warning that nothing less than their livelihoods are at stake.
"Go home and get on the phone. Call your congressmen -- they're home this weekend. Drop by and see them," exhorted Peter Na-- of the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union before the cheering throngs of 500 trade unionists in Arbutus last night.
"Try to convince them of what this means to your homes and your families," Mr. Nadash said.
Forget Ross Perot and his rabble-rousing on the right. Last night's rally at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union hall and dozens like it all over the country this weekend demonstrate the real reason why President Clinton's effort to create a giant free trade zone embracing Canada, the United States and Mexico is in grave danger of being rejected by the House of Representatives next week.
Organized labor, the Democratic Party's most loyal source of money, volunteers and support at the polls for at least 60 years, is calling in its chits.
After nearly two decades of waning clout at the bargaining table and declining living standards, rank-and-file workers across the land have worked themselves into a passionate fury against a trade deal they believe will only hurt them further.
All the fears, frustrations and insecurities of an economy where no one seems safe from layoffs have fueled a movement that could deny Mr. Clinton the support of nearly two-thirds of the lawmakers of his own party.
"NAFTA has become a symbol of all the problems that have happened with the economy over the last number of years," said William P. Daley, the brother of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley Jr. and coordinator of the administration's lobbying effort on the trade treaty.
With only a few days left to go before Wednesday's vote, Mr. Daley acknowledged that he is still lagging behind the agreement's opponents in securing the 218 commitments necessary for victory.
Even though half of Maryland's House delegation has already committed to vote for NAFTA, the union members at last night's rally set out to change some minds.
"We are not going to give up," declared Edward A. Mohler, president of the Maryland State and District of Columbia AFL-CIO. "We are going to take our best shot."
If it were not for labor's resistance, NAFTA would have been approved overwhelmingly regardless of Ross Perot's populist protests, lobbyists on both sides of the issue say.
Instead, the president is now trying to overcome what he calls the "roughshod, muscle-bound tactics" of a political force that also played a major role in his own election.
"President Clinton talks about us like we're goons or something," said William H. Bywater, president of the International Union of Electronics Workers, who has threatened to run primary candidates against any Democrats who vote for NAFTA. "But of course we're not going to support someone who double-crosses us on this. Why should we?"
The Texas billionaire has been effective in translating the complex trade debate into a single phrase that Americans can relate to: "the giant sucking sound" of their jobs being drawn away to Mexico.
The truth of this prediction is much in dispute; NAFTA supporters say long-term job gains as a result of economic growth will far outweigh any short-term losses.
Even so, House Republican leaders were chagrined to discover in September that an anti-NAFTA campaign waged last summer by Mr. Perot's vast "United We Stand" organization had persuaded at least 20 GOP members to switch sides and oppose the trade agreement.
Among Democrats, the problem is labor. And unlike the environmental groups, who have split over NAFTA, the unions have maintained a united front.
Auto workers, steelworkers, textile workers, machinists, electricians and others who believe their jobs are most directly threatened are on the front lines. But the rest of organized labor is behind them, including the politically potent teachers, who usually hold the largest voting bloc at Democratic national conventions.
Last year labor unions gave House candidates in both parties $43 million, most of which went to Democrats. For many veteran Democrats, the issue is more than just campaign cash.
Maryland Democrats Steny H. Hoyer and Benjamin L. Cardin, both backed by labor in the past, felt they were disappointing some of their most loyal political friends this week when they joined Republicans Constance A. Morella of the 8th District and Wayne T. Gilchrest of the 1st District in supporting the trade agreement. The state's two other House Democrats, Kweisi Mfume of the 7th District and Albert R. Wynn of the 4th District are strong NAFTA opponents, as are Republicans Helen Delich Bentley of the 2nd District and Roscoe Bartlett of the 6th District.
The Maryland trade unionists made no secret of their disappointment with Mr. Hoyer and Mr. Cardin.
"Go tell Ben Cardin 'No NAFTA, if he wants to be elected next year,' " said Lena Redmon, president of Local 744 of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers union.
While Mr. Cardin's seat is relatively safe, such threats are chilling for many House Democrats, particularly scores of newcomers swept into office last year largely on the basis of their substantial labor backing.
AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland said in a television interview yesterday that his organization would not necessarily withhold financial support, but he warned that lawmakers who support the trade deal should not expect help from labor volunteers.
In addition to the 20 or so anti-NAFTA labor rallies being staged this weekend, union members are paying personal visits on about 50 House members.
"It's much easier to organize the organized," Mr. Daley lamented. "A CEO's idea of grass roots is to write a letter."