Edwards Makes Courting Labor a Key Strategy in Bid for Nomination

Chuck Crull speaks with John Edwards after the Democratic candidate's speech to electrical workers in Iowa.
Chuck Crull speaks with John Edwards after the Democratic candidate's speech to electrical workers in Iowa. (By Cliff Jette -- Iowa City Gazette Via Associated Press)
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 7, 2007

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa, Aug. 6 -- Former senator John Edwards of North Carolina came to a labor hall here Monday morning for a speech on trade policy, but he had a different audience in mind. His tough rhetoric was the latest effort aimed at persuading the leaders of organized labor to support his presidential candidacy.

As Edwards was speaking, many of those labor leaders were gathering in Chicago, where the AFL-CIO will host a nationally televised forum for Democratic presidential candidates on Tuesday night at Soldier Field, home of the Chicago Bears. Behind closed doors, the union leaders will be discussing presidential politics.

The AFL-CIO's rules require a two-thirds majority for a collective endorsement, and rarely have members been able to reach agreement.

None of the leading Democratic candidates -- not Edwards or Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) or Barack Obama (Ill.) -- appears close to gaining that kind of support this year. What is likely to emerge from discussions of the AFL-CIO executive council in Chicago is a green light for individual unions to begin endorsing on their own.

"We're at a point now where some unions are ready to endorse," said Karen Ackerman, the AFL-CIO's political director. "A possibility at this council's meeting is that each union is now able to go off and endorse if they choose to do that."

The value of labor endorsements is in question, especially given the 2004 Democratic primaries. Four years ago, then-Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) won the support of about two dozen unions but finished fourth in the Iowa caucuses and was quickly out of the race. Former Vermont governor Howard Dean had the endorsement of three prominent unions and collapsed despite their support. The eventual nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), was backed by just one.

As of 2006, 12 percent of U.S. workers were union members, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a sharp decline from more than 20 percent in 1983. About 15.4 million Americans were in a union last year.

But for Edwards, who will be at a significant financial disadvantage against both Clinton and Obama, the support of unions could give him organizational resources that he would not otherwise have at his disposal.

Edwards has made the courtship of organized labor one of the central strategies of his presidential campaign. In 2005 and 2006, he walked picket lines, campaigned on behalf of minimum-wage initiatives and met repeatedly with union leadership around the country. He recruited as his campaign manager former congressman David E. Bonior of Michigan, who was one of labor's strongest advocates during his career in the House.

Edwards has also tailored his platform to cater to unions. His early plan for universal health care has won praise from key union officials, including leaders of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). The tax proposals he outlined a week ago were aimed at demonstrating his loyalty to workers.

Monday's trade speech was the latest effort along those lines. In it, he called for renegotiation -- but not abrogation -- of the North American Free Trade Agreement and promised to be a tougher negotiator as president. Too often, he said, trade agreements favor multinational corporations at the expense of workers.

"We need new trade policies in America," he said. "We need new trade policies that put workers, wages and families first. Not fourth, not third, not second. First."

Edwards has positioned himself to win the endorsements of several prominent unions -- some in the AFL-CIO and some that have left the federation -- according to labor sources. Among them are the steelworkers, the culinary workers, the transportation workers and the carpenters.

Edwards also has made inroads with the SEIU, which four years ago unexpectedly joined with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees to endorse Dean's candidacy. Clinton has irritated SEIU leaders by not meeting the union's Aug. 1 deadline for outlining a universal health-care plan.

In Cedar Rapids, Edwards tried not to raise expectations about his endorsement prospects. "What they decide to do in this presidential campaign I just think remains to be seen," he said. "I just think it's very much an open question."

Clinton has close ties to unions in New York, but many in organized labor look back at her husband's presidency as one in which the interests of unions and union workers were not given adequate priority, according to some officials. They point to the passage of NAFTA, which President Bill Clinton championed, the failure of the Clinton health-care proposal and later the passage of welfare changes that labor opposed.

Labor is further split this year in part because some of the other candidates -- Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) in particular -- have long-standing ties to unions and personal relationships with their leaders. For some unions, not endorsing will be the easiest decision.

Labor officials begin this campaign cycle in a more combative frame of mind, feeling they have been burned by candidates who check the right boxes on questionnaires but then do not fight hard for labor's interests once in office.

"It's no longer acceptable to say, 'Yeah, if I'm elected, I'll vote for it,' " said one union official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "It's how are you going to make sure this stuff works, and that's our responsibility representing workers in this country, unionized and non-unionized."

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