Wednesday, February 4, 2004

Sen. John Kerry is starting to pick up support from labor unions that still are wary of endorsing any candidates after poor showings by their preferred candidates early in the Democratic race for president.

Yesterday, the 1.3 million-member American Federation of Teachers endorsed the Massachusetts Democrat, calling him “a strong voice for all Americans.” Mr. Kerry also has won endorsements from national unions of sheet metal workers and Department of Treasury employees in the past few days.

If Mr. Kerry gains more union endorsements, it would represent a big change from the fractionalized opinions among organized labor since the Democrats started their campaigns.

In the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, the candidates endorsed by the largest labor unions did poorly.

Now, many labor unions are polling their members on whom to support or are waiting until the Democratic Party selects a candidate at its national convention in July.

“It’s all back to square one,” said Rob Black, spokesman for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which endorsed Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri.

Mr. Gephardt withdrew from the race after a dismal showing in the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses.

The Teamsters and the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) are among the unions surveying political preferences of members.

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which also endorsed Mr. Gephardt, is waiting to see which viable candidate emerges with a pro-union platform.

Fewer than one-fourth of voters in the Iowa caucuses were from union households, according to entrance polls conducted by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International for television networks. In 2000, one-third of Iowa voters came from union households.

The AFL-CIO labor federation’s executive council decided in November not to endorse any candidate during the Democratic primaries because it could get no clear consensus among its 64 member unions.

However, the federation says it is too soon to dismiss its political strength based on the poor performances of pro-union candidates so far.

“The union movement is going to come together to support someone who they feel will speak up for union families in the 2004 elections,” spokeswoman Lane Windham said. “I think you’ll absolutely see a united group.”

Early disagreements among unions are part of a normal exploratory process, she said.

However, other organized labor representatives see weaknesses in the difference of opinions.

“I don’t think the [AFL-CIO] has been firing on all eight cylinders,” said Rich Bond, a lobbyist for the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America. “Right now, they lack punch.”

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) decided to spend $1.6 million to convince nonunion voters to support former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean in the Democratic primaries.

Mr. Dean also was the candidate of choice for the powerful Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

He has not won a state primary election so far.

When Mr. Gephardt pulled out of the race, many of his supporters among industrial unions switched to Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. Mr. Edwards won his first primary this week in South Carolina.

Union households have been voting for other candidates, such as Mr. Kerry, as often as they do for Mr. Gephardt or Mr. Dean.

In speeches leading up to Tuesday’s seven-state primary, Mr. Kerry increasingly used the kind of rhetoric that appeals to unions.

“A job isn’t just about a paycheck or a punch card,” Mr. Kerry said during a speech last week at a Columbia, S.C., technical college. “It’s about dignity and the American dream.”

He pledged to fight for more jobs, inexpensive health care and lower taxes for the working class, all key issues for union households.

When the Democratic primary campaigns started, the only national union that officially endorsed Mr. Kerry was the small International Association of Fire Fighters.

Sara Howard, SEIU spokeswoman, called Mr. Kerry “a fine man.” Nevertheless, the union prefers Mr. Dean.

“We thought he was the candidate that best represents the interests of our members,” Miss Howard said.

Mr. Kerry’s scant union support is likely to change if he continues to win state primaries, labor analysts say.

“Once the race narrows down, I wouldn’t underestimate labor’s ability to be an impact player in the Democratic primary,” said Mr. Bond, a former Republican National Committee chairman. “The question now is whether they’ll be all show and no go.”

Any unity of the union movement is likely to depend on the final selection at the Democratic National Convention, said Vernon Briggs Jr., a Cornell University labor and economics professor.

“It depends on who the actual candidate is,” Mr. Briggs said.

In the 2000 election, the union vote made its strongest showing in history for a presidential candidate by supporting Vice President Al Gore. Organized labor played a big role in making the election the closest in American history.

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