The Iron Workers union, a member labor group of the AFL-CIO, broke ranks with its parent union Wednesday and endorsed Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt for president.

The building trades association held its legislative conference in Washington, where the 135,000-member Iron Workers union stated its support for the Democratic candidate.

“We need leadership that is in touch with the needs and concerns of working people,” said Joseph Hunt, the Iron Workers General President.  “That’s Dick Gephardt.  He’s one of us.”

The union's general executive board voted unanimously recently to give out the first union endorsement of the 2004 presidential election to Hunt's boyhood friend. As children, Gephardt and Hunt attended elementary and high school in St. Louis together and served in the Boy Scouts.

Gephardt promised that if elected, he would bring labor's goals to the Oval Office.

“The fight for working families is in my bones,” said Gephardt. “With the help of the Iron Workers and others in the labor movement, we can take that fight to the most powerful office in the history of humankind. We can revive a failing economy and give working Americans the help and the security they need.”

The decision to go ahead with the endorsement of Gephardt, one of nine Democrats seeking the party's presidential nomination, breaks with the AFL-CIO's request to hold off on early endorsements so the union can give its collective blessing.

The AFL-CIO endorsement is a coveted form of support among Democratic presidential candidates. To win endorsement, a candidate must get 60 percent of AFL-CIO votes at the union's annual convention. That convention typically takes place in the summer or fall before the primaries.

Winning 60 percent is a difficult feat in a field of nine candidates, and many analysts say they believe that no hopeful will get the AFL-CIO's national nod this year.

Of all the 2004 Democratic candidates, Gephardt has the deepest ties with labor and has the most to gain or lose based on the union's ability to pick a candidate. But he at least has the Iron Workers vote.

Some candidates are pushing a strategy to make it impossible for any one hopeful to win the endorsement, thereby neutralizing the issue. Gephardt has been actively courting AFL-CIO union members in hopes of trying to pick them off one at a time.

Gephardt has also been trying to win state union endorsements in case the national unions abide by the AFL-CIO's desire to not endorse any candidate.

At the convention, in which eight of the nine Democratic presidential hopefuls appeared, Gephardt praised the troops, though he did not praise the war.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., said April 9 will be known as "VI Day," or Victory in Iraq day. He and Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., both praised the war and the troops.

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry defended his criticism of the war as well as his call for "regime change" in the United States, for which he earned Republican scorn last week.

Of the doves, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun and civil rights activist Al Sharpton made no mention of the war and made no supporting comments of the troops. Sharpton only indirectly said that other nations should take a back seat to the United States in terms of reconstruction because the United States is doing all the difficult work.

Fox News' Carl Cameron and The Associated Press contributed to this report.