WASHINGTON, June 21 (UPI) -- If the only Tom Sawyer you know is the Mark Twain character, you're not alone. But among the nation's political crowd, it's a name suddenly on everyone's lips. The reason? Ohio Democrat Rep. Thomas Sawyer's recent primary loss indicates that the politics of trade policy is undergoing a big -- and welcome -- shake-up.
American labor unions are starting to tell their life-long Democratic Party allies, "You're not the only game in town."
Sawyer, who represented an industrial northeast Ohio district since 1986 that has just been redrawn, was upset in the May 7 Democratic primary by State Senator Timothy Ryan. Sawyer himself believes that a key reason for his defeat was trade policy: Until last fall's fast track vote in the House, Sawyer had alienated many of his constituents by supporting the Clinton and Bush administration's main trade policy initiatives.
Even more surprising, no national unions endorsed Sawyer, only a few gave him a modest amount of political action committee money, and union locals in the district strongly opposed him.
Like many trade-happy Democrats, Sawyer evidently thought he had organized labor over a barrel. The unions would have to accept his trade votes because they put so much emphasis on electing Democrats to Congress.
Critical to these calculations is the confidence that labor's non-trade priorities -- like safeguarding pro-union labor laws and preserving entitlements programs -- are now dominating labor's agenda and that the Republicans would remain unremittingly hostile to union interests.
The numbers supported this thinking as well. Membership in industrial unions, whose workers are most seriously affected by bad trade policy, has fallen to just over 20 percent of total union membership. Organized labor today consists largely of service workers and public employees.
The 2000 elections indicated that the trade-friendly Democrats were right. Their party nominated the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement champion Al Gore for the presidency, and the unions launched a hugely successful get-out-the-vote drive that was fueled by portrayals of George Bush and Republican congressional leaders as anti-union devils incarnate.
These elections, however, also revealed a fly in the Democrats' ointment that keeps getting bigger. The supposedly union-hating Bush won traditionally Democratic West Virginia -- which literally provided his narrow margin of victory -- by promising to reverse Bill Clinton's policies and help the state's beleaguered steel industry.
Trade wasn't Bush's only advantage in West Virginia. He also benefitted from Al Gore's coal-unfriendly environmental positions and silver spoon attitudes toward gun control. But Bush has so far kept his promise to steelworkers (and companies) with the tariffs he announced this spring.
In office, Bush has accommodated labor on various non-trade issues as well, like auto gas mileage standards which affect auto workers and oil drilling in Alaska which the Teamsters and others see as a jobs machine. But the president's agreement last fall to protect the dying and finishing segments of the textile industry shows that trade issues remain a significant part of the White House's blue-collar strategy.
Just as important, unions are taking note, and the impact on trade politics could be substantial. In the wake of Sawyer's defeat, the political director of the United Steelworkers told The Hill newspaper, "There have been as many Democrats whom we have trouble with as Republicans on trade policy issues....in some cases, we have started to target Democrats (in the 2002 Congressional races)." Added his counterpart for the United Autoworkers, that union "is looking beyond party labels to where incumbents and challengers stand on certain issues."
Meanwhile, the Teamsters have endorsed freshman Republican Rep. Dennis Rehberg of Montana and the Republican front-runner in the election for the seat of retiring union-stalwart and House Minority Whip David Bonior of Michigan.
A major partisan about-face by labor isn't coming any time soon. The unions still consider their non-trade agenda to be critically important, and Democrats still are much likelier to back these Big Government stances than Republicans.
Indeed, despite the Teamsters' defection, most unions back both Lucas in Kentucky and a Democrat running for the Bonior seat in Michigan. In addition, with control of the House up for grabs, organized labor is going to face tremendous pressure for Democratic leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri as well as Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota to stay in line.
Finally, President George W. Bush is no economic nationalist yet, and still supports many trade policies that will impoverish working families.
It would be great to report that labor is beginning to understand that trade remains American workers' make-or-break issue, that the nation cannot regulate and subsidize its way out of the race to the bottom in living standards launched by breakneck globalization. But unions -- not to mention the rest of American liberaldom -- aren't close to that point yet.
Rather, labor's new views have been driven solely by politics and self-preservation -- which are powerful enough forces. Savvy union political strategists -- along with much of the rank and file -- seem increasingly aware that the current Democrats-uber-alles approach is rapidly marginalizing them in Washington.
A lobby or interest taken for granted is a lobby or interest that's finished. With both parties roughly even in strength nationwide, unions are recognizing the advantages of offering themselves up to the highest bidder.
* Alan Tonelson, a columnist for Tradealert.org, is a research fellow at the U.S. Business and Industry Council Educational Foundation. His recent book on globalization, The Race to the Bottom, will be issued in paperback this fall by Westview Press.