Political Roundup: CAFTA Vote, AFL-CIO Schism

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Madeleine Brand discusses this week's political wranglings with NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams. Among the topics: the narrow passage of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in Congress late Wednesday night, and the rift in one of the nation's largest trade unions.


Senator Frist and the rest of Congress head home for their summer recess today after a particularly busy week. Today the Senate is expected to approve the energy bill, and the House narrowly approved the Central American Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA. Both are seen as victories for President Bush. NPR senior correspondent and regular DAY TO DAY contributor Juan Williams joins me now.

And, Juan, why were these victories so important to the White House?

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

Madeleine, I think you have to understand that CAFTA was a real test of the president's legislative agenda. If they had not won on CAFTA, I think there was a sense that the entire legislative agenda would not have seemed to have the power that the president wanted going into this August recess. The Senate approved CAFTA 54-45, I believe last month, and then you get a two-vote margin on the Hill on Thursday, 217-to-215. And so under this accord, you don't have tariffs; you don't have trade barriers between the United States and, I believe, there are a bunch of countries: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua--all these countries that signed trade deals with the US a year ago and had the promise from the Bush administration that a trade deal would be struck that would allow what they regard as fragile Latin American democracies more of a chance to became stable and prosperous, despite the anxieties in the American electorate over the economy.

BRAND: And one group that fought particularly hard against CAFTA was organized labor. And this week they suffered a big setback when the Teamsters and the service workers' union quit the AFL-CIO. So, Juan, I'm just wondering if that split augers poorly for legislative priorities that organized labor had on the Hill.

WILLIAMS: You know, Madeleine, what you have here is a situation where the AFL-CIO had been a powerhouse in terms of placing legislation on the agenda and getting legislation through. Obviously, that has sagged in recent years as the power of the AFL-CIO has gone down as the percentage of union households participating in elections has gone down--now, less than a quarter of the electorate. And most of them, of course--I think it's over 70 percent of union households--vote Democratic. So now you get legislation like CAFTA, and what you see is that the unions don't have the power that they used to have in the old days. In fact, you had many defections on the Democratic side to the point where the House leader for the Democrats, Nancy Pelosi, the congresswoman from California, was very upset; had a special meeting to ask why people were disaffected from the Democratic labor agenda. And I think you're going to see more of that in the future because, simply put, unless you have new energy brought in by a new alignment of unions--with the Service Employees International Union, SEIU, and the Teamsters pulling away from the AFL-CIO--unless you have these groups really energized--their voters, their members--to get involved with politics, I think what you're seeing here is now a long historical diminution of the power of unions in American life.

BRAND: And, Juan, of course, labor is a big contributor politically to the Democrats, so what does it mean for them?

WILLIAMS: Well, that's the question everybody around Washington is asking, Madeleine, because what you have that the unions, of course, have been part of the base of the Democratic Party. You think about minorities--blacks in particular. You think about the Jewish vote. You think about the women's vote. And you think about labor as the purse, really the bank, for so many of the Democrats. And now as you have the fastest-growing labor organization in the country, the SEIU, pulling away, the question is whether or not the Democrats will still be able to count on that money. And you look at what happened on the CAFTA vote we just discussed, and you begin to understand that the politicians aren't responding to the unions in the way that they did before, in part because the unions don't have the dollar control over the politicians that they had in previous generations.

BRAND: NPR senior correspondent and regular DAY TO DAY contributor Juan Williams. Thanks, Juan.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Madeleine.

BRAND: Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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