- The Washington Times - Monday, August 4, 2003

Rep. Richard A. Gephardt is emerging as a top candidate among labor unions as he tries to win support this week from the AFL-CIO national labor federation.

The AFL-CIO executive council is meeting this week in Chicago to discuss labor policy, plot a strategy for the 2004 election and meet with presidential candidates.

Although the federation has not selected a single candidate, individual unions are announcing their preferences. The United Steelworkers of America is scheduled to make an announcement today.

“He is certainly high on the list,” Steelworkers spokesman Gary Hubbard said about Mr. Gephardt, Missouri Democrat.

Mr. Gephardt is claiming to have won endorsements from nine unions. Among them is the 720,000-member International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. He is the only candidate to officially win the support of any major unions.

The Steelworkers’ endorsement will be based on a survey of its members, whose votes were still being counted last night. An official announcement of the results is expected at a press conference today at Chicago’s Knickerbocker Hotel.

The Teamsters Union, one of the largest of the 65 federated unions in the AFL-CIO, is also signaling its support for Mr. Gephardt. An announcement from the 1.4-million member Teamsters is scheduled for Saturday.

“Representative Gephardt has an unparalleled labor record and has always been a friend of Teamsters’ working families,” said Rob Black, Teamsters spokesman.

Endorsements from the Teamsters and Steelworkers would breathe new life into Mr. Gephardt’s struggling presidential campaign.

He has been trailing in recent polls in the first caucus state of Iowa, where he won the primary race during his 1988 presidential campaign.

He raised a disappointing $3.9 million in April, May and June of this year, and was forced to work the phones to reassure supporters he could still win.

“He’s been there with labor throughout his career,” said Bill Burton, Mr. Gephardt’s spokesman.

Unions’ support for him grew when he opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement, which removed trade barriers for employers to move jobs to Mexico or Canada.

The Teamsters’ political action committee is one of the nation’s 10 biggest donors to presidential campaigns, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, giving $2.4 million to mostly Democratic candidates in the last election cycle.

All nine Democrats running for president are in Chicago this week making pitches to the AFL-CIO’s executive council. Other Democratic contenders for labor support include Sens. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, John Edwards of North Carolina, Bob Graham of Florida, and John Kerry of Massachusetts, Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

Labor leaders are questioning them on unemployment, health care and international trade deals.

Winning an AFL-CIO endorsement will be more difficult than in previous presidential elections.

In February, the AFL-CIO decided that a 2004 candidate would need two-thirds of the weighted vote of its general board to win an endorsement. Previously, only a majority was required.

If there is an endorsement, it is likely to be announced later this week, said Suzanne Ffolkes, AFL-CIO spokeswoman.

“It’s hard to say,” she said. “We can’t predict what the executive council will do.”

Endorsements for Mr. Gephardt from all unions are far from certain.

In one example yesterday, the Chicago Teamsters Local 705 announced it is supporting Mr. Kerry for president. With nearly 21,000 members, Local 705 is the largest Teamster local union in Illinois and the second-largest Teamster local in the country.

The AFL-CIO has endorsed two candidates in recent presidential elections: Al Gore in 2000 and Walter Mondale in 1984. Both of them won the Democratic nomination, but lost the presidential election.

President Bush has met with leaders of the Teamsters and carpenters unions seeking their support in breaking the Democratic stranglehold on labor. He invited Teamsters President James Hoffa to the State of Union address.

However, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney has said the labor federation would target its efforts at removing Mr. Bush from office. Rising unemployment and trade agreements that result in U.S. job losses are among the labor federation’s complaints.

The Teamsters endorsed Mr. Bush’s father, former President George Bush, and other Republicans, such as Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon.

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