By Steve Hoffman
Beacon Journal politics writer
Vice President Al Gore solidified his support from organized labor in Ohio yesterday by appearing at a regional AFL-CIO awards dinner, where he hammered home the importance of the state's March 7 primary to his campaign.
``March 7 is a key turning point in this race,'' said Gore. And, he said, while national attention has been focused on New York and California, among the other states also voting March 7, ``right here in Ohio, the decisive choice will be made.''
Gore, accompanied by AFL-CIO national president John Sweeney, drew applause when he pledged to get rid of what he called ``the striker replacement travesty.''
The vice president also promised to help level the playing field for union organizers by ending delays caused by the GOP's ``starving'' of the National Labor Relations Board.
Toward the end of his remarks, Gore made reference to the contentious issue of foreign trade.
``You know, I'm for expanding our markets,'' he said, packaging the Clinton-Gore administration's record on trade in the context of the nation's overall economic expansion.
But Gore said labor was right to insist that worker standards and environmental standards be included in trade agreements. And he was unequivocal about labor's right to organize.
``There is only one organization capable of balancing the unhealthy concentration of power in the workplace,'' he said about unions.
``Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and organize,'' Gore shouted as he ended his speech, which lasted about 35 minutes.
Gore traveled to Dayton from Southfield, Mich., where he spoke about his education proposals. Gore wants to make preschool universally available and to establish a National Tuition Savings Program to help working families save for college tuition.
More than 750 labor leaders from an 11-county region attended the awards banquet in Dayton, generally safe territory for Democratic candidates.
``I think he's the best man for what the country needs,'' labor leader Don Brewer said about Gore.
Brewer, 47, a Kettering resident, is a member of the International Union of Electrical Workers Local 755, which represents some 2,500 workers at a GM chassis plant. Brewer said he is head of the union's political committee.
Brewer said foreign trade issues remain of concern to his members, however.
``Every GM plant has been affected in some way,'' he said.
With Ohio Democrats shut out of statewide executive offices -- and with the Ohio Democratic Party officially neutral -- organized labor is a critical element in Gore's battle plan against former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley for the Democratic presidential nomination.
In Iowa and New Hampshire, labor participation was 37 percent and 24 percent, respectively, of the Democratic primary vote, about twice what would be expected based on the overall number in the electorate, Sweeney said.
And, Sweeney said, 75 percent of the labor vote in those states went to Gore. Gore staffers said yesterday that the percentage of the labor vote in the Ohio Democratic primary could be as high as 40 percent.
``I thank you deeply,'' Gore told his audience in Dayton yesterday.
Gore also has built up a string of endorsements in Ohio, including endorsements from 60 of the state's 88 county party chairs and from big-city mayors. It is a base of support event Bradley's strongest backers admit is formidable.
Gore also received the endorsement of the Ohio Education Association yesterday, the state's largest teachers' union.
But Bradley is expected to campaign hard in the weeks leading to the March 7 primary. He was in Cleveland Heights Tuesday night, where he held a forum on race relations.
Gore's trip was his second to Ohio since his narrow victory over Bradley in the New Hampshire primary last week.
Gore held a rally last Wednesday at Ohio State University, fresh from his New Hampshire victory. At OSU, he was briefly interrupted by protesters who said Gore had backed off a campaign promise to review, and possibly shut down, a toxic waste incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio.
Environmental protesters were also on hand yesterday in Dayton, but were escorted off the grounds of a party center well before Gore arrived.
Bruce Cornett, with the Green Environmental Coalition in Yellow Springs, showed up with about a half-dozen others to protest the continued operations of the toxic incinerator.
``This is a political situation,'' Cornett said.
He said a meeting between East Liverpool residents and federal EPA officials is scheduled for Feb. 18 in Washington, where he said an agreement could be reached on an independent review of the incinerator's expired permit.
But Cornett said the deal would not include a promise from the White House to follow the findings of the independent review.
``We think it might be a stalling tactic,'' Cornett said.