WASHINGTON -- The vehemence of the reaction of labor leaders to their defeat on the North American Free Trade Agreement is an obvious product of the frustration they feel at their declining clout in the Democratic Party.
But the union chiefs should not be surprised. The pattern of diminishing influence has been apparent for a decade or longer. Despite the fact that many of the unions are a prized asset in campaigns for both the money and the manpower they can provide Democratic candidates, the AFL-CIO no longer can count on putting together big majorities for such prime labor goals as the striker replacement bill and a higher minimum wage.
During the campaign last year Big Labor allowed candidate Bill Clinton to get away with a waffling position on NAFTA that everyone could see was a precursor to supporting it this year. The Arkansas governor clearly was not their dream candidate, but he was a Democrat and after 12 years labor was in no position to be choosy.
To a degree, labor's declining influence is simply a question of numbers. Unions now represent less than 16 percent of the work force, and that includes many public employees and teachers with relatively little in common with old-line industrial unions on issues like NAFTA.
Perhaps more to the point, unions have lost standing with the rest of the population. Many workers are too young to know firsthand why unions were necessary in the first place -- or how much they owe to unions for the conditions under which they work these days. And the Republicans have been remarkably successful over the past 20 years in depicting unions as a "special interest" with inordinate influence on American politics in general and the Democratic Party in particular.
Union support is a prized asset for candidates in the Rust Belt states still heavily dependent on manufacturing. Such unions as the United Auto Workers, Communications Workers of America and the National Education Association provide financing for the Democratic Party apparatus and, equally important, the manpower to identify and turn out Democratic votes.
But labor backing is not an unmixed blessing. For one thing, as some union leaders will concede, unions no longer can deliver their own members and their families -- as was demonstrated with the defection of so many blue-collar workers to Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984 and to George Bush in 1988. They returned to the Democratic column last time not because Lane Kirkland said so but because their economic fears argued strongly for getting a Democrat, any Democrat, back in the White House.
Labor's heated response to the NAFTA vote presents Clinton with a tricky political problem. On the one hand, the president doesn't want the anger to simply boil on unacknowledged, which is why he called AFL-CIO President Kirkland after the vote. On the other, he dare not be seen as going to such great lengths to placate unions that he has become their captive.
Clinton also is going to have to find some way to reassure several dozen House Democrats who went along with NAFTA despite threats by union leaders to cut them off at the knees in the midterm elections next year. There was no mistaking the message in the declaration of William Bywater of the International Electrical Workers Union: "We're going to make sure we get even at the polls."
The White House may be able to smooth over the trouble temporarily with a variety of techniques. The administration can, as promised, produce a significant program to protect dislocated workers. And the party can provide money to some of those Democrats who will lose union contributions next year.
But the fundamentals of the situation are not going to change. Bill Clinton is, as advertised, "a different kind of Democrat" -- which means, among other things, one who is not going to be as reliably supportive of labor and its economic prescriptions as a Walter Mondale might have been.
That's what got him nominated and elected last year and he is now betting it is a ticket to re-election in 1996. So Big Labor has little choice but to make the best of it unless it is ready for another Republican in the White House.