CHICAGO – The one candidate who wasn’t there and wasn’t expected was the focus of the AFL-CIO’s National Candidates Forum Aug. 5. “Show him the door in 2004!” was the message for George W. Bush, the missing candidate, chanted by a group of retirees to the delight of the 2,500 union members and leaders waiting for the program to begin in Navy Pier Auditorium here.

The fast-moving 90-minute program featured a video collage of hard-hitting questions posed to the nine candidates by nurses, laundry workers, fire fighters, laid-off factory workers, and retirees about jobs, health care, overtime pay, pensions, and freedom to organize unions.

“This is the only forum bringing the issues working families talk about at the kitchen table right to the candidates,” said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney.

Diverse approaches to health care included advocacy of a single-payer, Canada-style program by former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich and New York community activist Rev. Al Sharpton. Other candidates proposed a range of employer tax credits and government-subsidized insurance programs to address the crisis, which leaves millions uninsured and union contract negotiations under increasing pressure for concessions due to skyrocketing costs.

Speaking of jobs, David Bevard, union president from the soon-to-be-shut down Maytag plant in Galesburg, Ill., said free trade agreements like NAFTA and FTAA are “premeditated murder of communities like ours.” Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri reminded the audience of his leadership in the fight against NAFTA.

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, who had voted in favor of NAFTA, said he would now oppose FTAA without worker rights and environmental protections, adding – in reference to the president’s trickle down economic policies – that “every worker in America is tired of being trickled on by George Bush.”

A Cintas laundry worker described in one of the video clips how she was fired for her union organizing activities. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean responded with a proposal for a federal law change to declare the establishment of a union when a majority of workers have signed cards. Other candidates weighed-in in favor of “card check,” although Kucinich trumped them all with a pledge to repeal the infamous Taft-Hartley legislation.

Kucinich was the most combative candidate of the evening, directly challenging his competitors’ records and programs, vowing to cancel NAFTA, FTAA, WTO, and the Bush tax cuts, and to “staff the Department of Labor from top to bottom from the house of labor.”

The biggest cheers went to Rev. Al Sharpton for statements like, “We have an attorney general who can’t find corporate greed criminals, but can put every labor leader under investigation,” while Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman drew the only boos of evening with his advocacy of “experimental” school voucher programs.

As the crowd of workers filed out of the auditorium at the conclusion of the program one electrical lineman told the World, “I’m not looking for a president right now, I’m looking to see who is the one who can beat Bush.”

Dozens of attendees interviewed after the event also seemed to be sizing up the candidates from the same viewpoint, but were surprisingly unanimous in their non-committal stance. They were impressed with Sharpton for the wit and insight he wields in favor of working people, with Dean’s accomplishments in Vermont, Kerry’s veteran’s record, Braun’s health care commitment, North Carolina Sen. John Edward’s folksy manner, Kucinich’s bold program, and Gephardt’s long history in support of organized labor.

The Steelworkers and Teamsters Union endorsed Gephardt this week, but Steelworkers President Leo Gerard made it clear that his union’s endorsement was in no way a rejection of the other candidates.

It appeared unlikely that the AFL-CIO would be making an endorsement soon, according to AFL-CIO Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson, who told a press conference earlier, “We don’t think it will be hard to rally around the candidate – anybody but Bush.”

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