Unions Go Slow in Backing a Democrat

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Cliff Jette / Iowa City Gazette / AP

Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards speaks with Chuck Crull following a speech about trade issues at IBEW Local 405 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Monday, August 6, 2007.

In a campaign season that has started earlier than ever, one powerful group trying not to get swept up in the heat of the moment is organized labor. As members of the largest U.S. umbrella union, the AFL-CIO, gather in Chicago for the launch of their presidential endorsement process, no immediate endorsements are expected. And that is causing particular angst for the Democratic candidate who has worked hardest for the union vote: John Edwards.

Since Edwards's run for the Vice Presidency in 2004, he has gone to more than 200 organizing events for more than 20 unions. "There has been no presidential candidate in history that has done more for working people over the last three years than John Edwards," said David Bonior, Edwards's campaign manager and a former union-friendly Congressman himself. He cited a number of the former Senator's labor-friendly initiatives: a universal health care plan, his comprehensive proposal to fight poverty, a call to raise to minimum wage to $9.50 and a plan, introduced Monday, to overhaul U.S. trade agreements to include labor and environmental standards.

Yet for all his actions, and his rhetoric, unions are not going gaga for Edwards the way they did in 2004 for former House Speaker Dick Gephardt or former Vermont Governor Howard Dean. "Dick Gephardt for 30 years carried the water for working people in this country," said Terry O'Sullivan, general president of the 500,000-member Laborer's International Union of North America. "In 2008 we have a second-term Senator, a one-term Senator and a first-term Senator as the top-tier candidates. We don't have any top-tier candidates that have been around like that for 30 years."

What's more, 2004 may have served as a lesson. With LIUNA and other unions supporting Gephardt, while others, like the 1.3 million-member Service Employees International Union, endorsed Dean, labor watched in dismay as John Kerry pulled out a surprise win in the Iowa caucus.

"The buzz changes all the time and it's just really too early," said Anna Burger, who oversees political affairs for the SEIU. "It's very still fluid in terms of getting to know the candidates." Echoed O'Sullivan: "This time around, it's worthy of us to take a more cautious and thoughtful approach."

Labor sources say it is unlikely that any of the top candidates will succeed in drawing the two-thirds support of the AFL-CIO's 10 million members needed to win an endorsement before the primary season, a feat accomplished only twice in the organization's history: for former Vice President Al Gore in 2000 and Walter Mondale in 1984. "We're really pleased it's a really strong field this year," said Karen Ackerman, the AFL-CIO's political director. "All of the candidates have been actively involved with many of our members."

After hearing from the eight Democratic candidates at Tuesday's forum, the AFL-CIO's executive committee is scheduled to meet Wednesday to decide if and when they will hold an endorsement meeting this fall. All the organization's member unions are asked to hold off picking candidates until the AFL-CIO's executive board makes its decision. If it fails to muster a two-thirds majority for any one candidate, then it will release its member unions to back whomever they wish.

Bonior said the Edwards campaign expects to get "the vast majority of union support and endorsements" this fall. But while many union leaders admit Edwards has, in Burger's words, "set the standard" for the other presidential candidates, they are still looking closely at New York Senator Hillary Clinton and Illinois Senator Barack Obama.

"Whenever there was an organizing campaign [Edwards] was out there supporting workers, so I think that people are very impressed with what he's been willing to do and how he's been willing to give of himself," Burger said. "But Barack Obama's been incredibly supportive of working families in his home state of Illinois. And Hillary Clinton has done a lot of work with our locals in New York."

Clinton, the former First Lady, has worked to distance herself from her husband's free-trade record, which was unpopular with labor, going so far as to criticize the North American Free Trade Agreement as something inherited by her husband's administration. In the Senate she has voted against the Central American Free Trade Agreement and has announced her opposition to the pending South Korean Free Trade Agreement. In addition, she was only presidential candidate to turn up at a rally in front of Congress for the Employee Free Choice Act — a bill that facilitates union organizing, which was ultimately blocked by Senate Republicans. "We work better when you work with us," she told the crowd who braved 100-degree temperatures for the rally.

Bill Clinton's stigma with labor "might have some effect" on union support for his wife's candidacy, said Gerald McEntee, president of the 1.4-million member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. But he added, "I don't know that you can blame the so-called sins of the husband on Hillary."

Some unions are also still pondering backing Obama, who is still in his first term as a U.S. Senator and has had much less time and opportunity to court the national union umbrella groups or their branches in early-voting states.

"We worked very closely with him on the immigration bill," said O'Sullivan of the Laborer's union. "He was very engaged." Obama this year introduced a series of amendments to the doomed legislation that helped labor protect the minimum wage and helped define certain technical visa terms.

Still, Edwards has done much more work on the ground with the unions. "John Edwards has a certain passion with people that he's walked the streets with because he stood up for them in a very serious way when they needed it," SEIU's Burger said. "People are going to look to see whether the other candidates are willing to do that, too."

One of the unions that Edwards has especially strong ties with is Unite, a textile union that endorsed him before the 2004 Iowa caucus. Since then he helped them roll out a campaign in February 2006 to pressure hotel chains to raise the minimum wage for more than 90,000 unionized hospitality workers. Unite, formerly the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, left the AFL-CIO after the 2004 election and joined with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union to form Unite Here, with more than 450,000 members. Edwards remains close with the union, which has a large presence in Las Vegas — which could give him an important boost in Nevada, which has moved its caucus to be the second in the nation after Iowa.

While union membership has declined — it now accounts for just 12% of the workforce — its political activity has soared. In 2004 and 2006 unions were by far the biggest independent spenders. Getting union support could provide a much needed jump start for Edwards's flagging campaign. "He's been working hard for a long time — since he left the Senate — courting the union vote," said O'Sullivan, who met with Edwards in the spring of 2005 at his Georgetown townhouse. Still, he said, his union is not committed and, he predicted, few would be any time soon. As one labor official noted: why endorse now when you may be able to extract more promises later?