COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ralph Nader was on a tear, railing against chief executives' salaries, the corporate-dominated campaign finance system and cuts in factory inspections. Several of the steelworkers seated around him were nodding, and then nodding again, in silent approval.
For a few minutes at least on Friday, it seemed as if the steelworkers' cynicism about politics and politicians had evaporated, and they were receiving the truth, or at least a truth they rarely hear.
"You're the guys who work hard," said Nader, the Green Party candidate for president. "You're the guys who pay the taxes. You're the guys who fight the wars, and then they say, 'Tough. We're closing the factory. It's globalization.' And then they use factories overseas where dictators repress the wages to compete against you."
Nader — whose words, though not his speaking style, are laced with emotion — then laid into Vice President Al Gore and other Democratic politicians, saying they have done little for labor because they have been able to take labor's support for granted.
"When you're taken for granted, you're taken," he said. "When organized labor can say to these candidates, 'You're not going to take us for granted anymore, we have an alternative and the alternative is Nader and the Green Party,' then they'll start calling, then they'll start catering to you."
Afterward, the 20 steelworkers who had squeezed into a small Ohio State University classroom to hear Nader gave him rave reviews, and many of them vowed to vote for him this November.
"I'd say Nader is the best of anyone," said David Cole, an electrician at AK Steel's mill in Mansfield, who drove 75 minutes to hear Nader. "I really like him. I haven't seen much from anyone else."
His friend and co-worker Larry Pugh was just as enthusiastic. "I think he has the right answers," said Pugh, a crane operator at the plant, where management locked out 620 workers last September. "He gives us a choice because the Democrats and Republicans have sold us down the river."
This outpouring of enthusiasm for Nader worries many Democrats, who fear that so many steelworkers, autoworkers, Teamsters and other union members will vote for him this fall that it could cause Gore to lose in Ohio and other large Midwestern swing states. For the Democrats, an added concern is that two of the largest, most powerful unions in the Midwest, the Teamsters and the United Auto Workers, have flirted with Nader and have not endorsed Gore, even though the AFL-CIO is backing the vice president.
Many steelworkers are still angry at Gore because he backed the agreement to normalize trade relations with China, an accord that many union members fear will accelerate the exodus of U.S. factories to China. Although Nader is best known for his crusading on consumer protection and the environment, he has grown closer to labor unions in recent years, fighting alongside them against the China trade deal, the World Trade Organization and the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Although all the steelworkers at Columbus hailed Nader, several said they would still vote for Gore, explaining that they feared Gov. George W. Bush would win if Nader drained too many votes away from the vice president.
"I'd like to thank you for championing our issues," Skip Hall, another steelworker who drove in from Mansfield, told Nader. "You're terrifying the Democrats. You know this is going to be a very close election. In 1980, I was dissatisfied with Jimmy Carter. I backed Ted Kennedy, and we ended up with Ronald Reagan. He gave us a bad Supreme Court. We're still living with that today. That's the dilemma we face today. The same thing could happen with you."
The excitement generated by Nader also concerns some labor leaders. John J. Sweeney, the AFL-CIO's president, has repeatedly urged union members to back Gore, saying it is important to prevent Bush from winning because working with a Republican Congress, he might push through legislation to weaken unions and job safety laws.
George Becker, president of the United Steelworkers of America, was one of labor's most vociferous critics of the China trade deal, but he now says it is time to line up behind Gore. He said in an interview that labor's support for Nader was modest and would grow smaller, and he predicted that many union members leaning toward Nader would ultimately vote for Gore upon realizing that Nader cannot win.
"There are two viable candidates, Al Gore and George W. Bush, and we're picking the one closest to the viewpoints of our members and the issues of working people," Becker said. "Nader's a fine man. He takes a lot of positions that are near and dear to us. But he is not a viable candidate. In that regard, anybody who would support Ralph Nader we think would lessen Al Gore's chances of winning."
David Leland, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, said that the race between Gore and Bush was close in his state, but that he did not think Nader would hurt the vice president. Recent polls show Nader getting 4 percent of the vote in Ohio, compared with more than 10 percent in California, but Leland said those were high-water marks that were bound to fall.
"Most people know a vote for Ralph Nader is a wasted vote at best and a vote for George Bush at worst," he said.
Becker said he hoped Gore would become more outspoken on workers' issues to excite union members about his candidacy. Indeed, on Monday, Gore is scheduled to hold a town hall meeting in Cleveland with 75 steelworkers from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Illinois. The Nader campaign sees this as a move to keep union members from drifting toward their candidate.
Nader said a central purpose of his candidacy was to move the Democratic Party left on labor and other issues. To make it easier for unions to organize, Nader called for making it legal for a union to boycott not just the company it is striking against but other companies that do business with it. (Such boycotts were banned by the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947.) He also called for requiring employers to pay triple damages when they illegally fire workers for supporting a union.
Asserting that he should be included in any presidential debates, Nader said he would seek to force Gore and Bush to address work-related issues, like occupational safety, that have been largely ignored during the campaign.
"Gore will tell you, 'I'm for you. I'm going to fight for you. I'm for a ban on using replacement workers in strikes,"' Nader said. "But what has he done in eight years? I don't care what you're for. I want to know what you've done. Talk is cheap."