SILVER SPRING, Md. (Reuters) - Leaders of the country’s largest labor union federation, the AFL-CIO, pressed U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton on Thursday to demand greater protection for American workers in a planned Pacific Rim trade deal.
Democratic front-runner Clinton is seeking the union group’s endorsement ahead of the November 2016 presidential election but must tread carefully on trade.
Unions’ concerns about America losing jobs under the Trans-Pacific Partnership put Clinton in an awkward position as she was a strong promoter of closer ties to Asia when she was President Barack Obama’s secretary of State.
A union official who attended a meeting between Clinton and the AFL-CIO’s executive council on Thursday said the former first lady was well received and strong on a number of issues, but there were concerns about her not taking a firmer stance on trade.
Clinton told the committee the trade pact was still being negotiated and she would not commit to a position on it, the official said.
She later told reporters that she has urged the Obama administration to pay more attention to issues in the trade negotiations like health and environmental regulations, workers’ rights and wages, and currency manipulation.
“I can’t comment yet, because I haven’t seen (the trade deal), but I’m hoping - and again, publicly urging - that in these last parts of the negotiation we make more progress on those issues that have been raised by members of Congress, and by me and others,” she said.
Clinton’s rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination, most notably liberal Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, are also trying to win the endorsement of the AFL-CIO, which represents a wide range of professions, from brick layers to machinists to nurses.
Sanders, who opposes the trade pact, also spoke to the AFL-CIO executive council meeting this week in the Washington suburb of Silver Spring, Maryland.
Another union official who attended the meeting said Clinton got a positive reaction and lots of applause from the committee, adding that Sanders was similarly well received on Wednesday.
Organized labor is a crucial base of support for the Democratic Party. The AFL-CIO’s endorsement would provide a huge advantage to a presidential candidate, given the large role that labor plays raising money and mobilizing voters for candidates.
Clinton made her pitch for an endorsement, although the federation might delay picking a candidate for a while.
“I made it clear to them that raising incomes was at the center of my economic agenda. I think it’s the defining challenge of our times and that’s why I put out a plan for strong growth, fair growth and long-term growth,” she told reporters after talks with the AFL-CIO.
The group could choose to hold off on endorsing any candidate until the primary contests are over. In 2008, the federation’s unions were split between Clinton and Obama, who was then a U.S. senator. It ultimately endorsed Obama in June 2008 when it was clear he was going to be the Democratic nominee.
Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Howard Goller and Leslie Adler