- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 19, 2004

The AFL-CIO yesterday endorsed John Kerry for president, giving the senator from Massachusetts a critical campaign operation and treasury for the rest of the primary and in the general election against President Bush.

“The time has come to unite behind one man, one leader, one candidate,” John Sweeney, president of the umbrella organization for 13 million union members, said at a rally after the organization’s general board made the unanimous decision.

Mr. Kerry then told the crowd outside the AFL-CIO headquarters on 16th Street, two blocks north of the White House, that Mr. Bush has betrayed them by failing to enforce fair trade.

“George Bush ran for office and he said that if our trading partners are unfair with us, they will hear from us. Well, the silence has been deafening,” he said. “All they hear from this administration is silence and a nod and a wink. I pledge to you that I will insist on real worker and real environmental provisions in the trade agreements, and unlike George Bush, I will enforce them,” he said.

Labor is one of the pillars of Democratic Party politics, and the backing of the AFL-CIO is another sign that Democrats believe Mr. Kerry is the best candidate to carry the banner against Mr. Bush. Mr. Kerry has won 15 of the 17 binding primaries or caucuses held so far.

The union federation’s support also means staffers and a ready-made political organization will help Mr. Kerry as he prepares for a one-on-one showdown with Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, the other presidential candidate with a chance to win the Democratic nomination. Mr. Edwards has criticized Mr. Kerry for having voted in favor of creating the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993.

Mr. Edwards has a 96 percent rating for his entire career, and received a 100 percent rating — 13 of 13 votes — from the AFL-CIO in 2002, the most recent year for which they have posted a scorecard.

Mr. Kerry, by contrast, has a 91 percent rating for his entire career and scored a 92 percent in 2002. His only vote against the AFL-CIO’s position was to grant the president “fast-track” trade-negotiating authority.

But Harold Schaitberger, general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said Mr. Kerry has proved himself over the long haul.

“The fact of the matter is John Kerry has a 21-year record at 91 percent — that’s a lot of votes over a long period of time,” said Mr. Schaitberger, whose union backed Mr. Kerry early on and who has been a presence with Mr. Kerry across the campaign trail.

He said the union leaders decided yesterday to look forward to who could best carry labor’s goals forward.

“I think there was unanimity in the meetings this morning among my colleagues — we’re not going to go back and try to change history,” he said. “In the future, we’re convinced John Kerry will absolutely work to ensure that the current trade agreements will be enforced and be fair.”

Asked about the endorsement yesterday, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said it doesn’t necessarily mean union members will follow suit.

“I’m just pointing out that I think there’s a difference between the leadership and the rank-and-file workers,” Mr. McClellan said.

In 2000, Mr. Bush won 34 percent of union voters’ support and 37 percent of support from voters with a union member in the household, according to exit polls.

It is also uncertain how much union organization matters. Mr. Edwards, speaking to reporters yesterday, said he has done well so far without labor endorsements.

In Iowa’s caucuses, the two candidates with the most union backing — former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri — placed third and fourth respectively.

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