(CNSNews.com) - Following the Democrats' latest pitch to organized labor -- a Tuesday-night debate in Chicago sponsored by the AFL-CIO -- Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean reaffirmed his party's commitment "to stand with America's hard-working families."
"From expanding health care coverage, to protecting the right of America's workers to organize and be a part of a union, to ensuring that workers have a secure retirement, to strengthening our economy and creating jobs at home, Democrats understand the challenges facing workers in our country," Dean said in a statement.
Dean ticked off what he views as the recent accomplishments of congressional Democrats: a minimum-wage hike, college affordability, and expanded health care for children.
But more needs to be done, he said - and that includes passing the Employee Free Choice Act, "to make sure that the right of workers to organize and start unions without fear of harassment or intimidation is protected. A Democratic president will continue this fight so that everyone can achieve the American Dream," Dean said.
On its Web site, the AFL-CIO said the winner of the Democratic debate was "working families." (The union has not endorsed a presidential candidate.)
And clearly, the candidates' responses were intended to impress the debate's hardhat audience.
During the debate - broadcast on MSNBC -- the Democrats advocated universal health care and pension reform; recommended either reforming or scrapping the North American Free Trade Agreement; and denounced the political influence of lobbyists and corporations.
In particular, the candidates attempted to use the recent bridge collapse in Minneapolis as a springboard to discuss America's transportation networks.
"We have to make investments in infrastructure," Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) said. "This will create jobs" and "it's also part of homeland security."
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) said the nation must readjust its spending priorities. This includes defunding and halting the war in Iraq, he said.
"That also will allow us to free up the kind of resources that will make us safer here at home because we'll be able to invest in port security, chemical plant security, all the critical issues," he said.
The Democrats also denounced corporations and Washington insiders as exploiters of workers and the lower class.
"We need to give the power in America back to you, back to the working men and women all across this country," said Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.).
The candidates tried to gain traction on trade by denouncing trade agreements such as NAFTA and CAFTA, which are unpopular with American unions.
"I believe in smart trade," said Clinton. "I've said that for years." She advocates "pro-American trade," which she defined as "trade that has labor and environmental standards."
Clinton called for the creation of a special trade prosecutor and emphasized that she voted against CAFTA.
All the candidates advocated reforming and reexamining NAFTA, with the exception of Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) who wants to scrap the treaty. Kucinich also insisted that the United States pull out of the World Trade Organization.
The debate also produced an argument among some of the candidates over which one of them had walked the most picket lines.
Declining union influence
Before the MSNBC broadcast the Democrats' debate, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney gave a brief speech, praising the candidates for their hard work on behalf of American labor. He said his union is mounting the "biggest election effort ever."
"You can think of this AFL-CIO forum as one giant job interview, with workers doing the interviewing," Sweeney said. "It's workers who make our country great and it's workers who will make a difference in 2008."
But as U.S. industry evolves, the influence and relevance of unions may be simultaneously declining.
According to the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, 12 percent of the national workforce belonged to labor unions in 2006, down from 12.9 percent in 2004. That number is down from the 35 percent of workers who were union members in the 1950s.
Union issues have gained little traction in recent years. International trade agreements such as NAFTA and CAFTA have been passed by both Republican and Democrat administrations, and union-supported initiatives, including a recent bill making it easier for workers to organize, have gone nowhere.
Additionally, labor unions' support for oil drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) has yielded little result, mainly due to Democrats who denounced the initiative on environmental grounds. ANWR was not mentioned in Tuesday's debate.
Regardless of their influence, unions such as the AFL-CIO have deep pockets. Unions spent $66 million on the 2006 midterm elections, most of it going to liberal Democratic candidates.
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