WASHINGTON – The coalition of unions that once backed Dick Gephardt in his presidential bid on Wednesday gave its expected endorsement to Democratic front-runner John Kerry (search).
The 19 unions that formed the Alliance for Economic Justice (search) voted unanimously to get behind Kerry. An endorsement rally, timed for the Wisconsin primary on Tuesday, is planned in Milwaukee with Kerry, Gephardt and the unions' presidents.
"We support his candidacy, and we're going to work to make sure he's the next president of the United States," said Bret Caldwell, spokesman for the Teamsters (search), a leading union in the new alliance of blue-collar unions, which also includes the machinists, steelworkers, laborers and paperworkers.
The endorsement was expected after Gephardt, who dropped out of the race after finishing fourth in Iowa, gave his support last week to Kerry and urged his union allies to follow.
Kerry, who once had just two union endorsements, has received several as he has racked up 12 of 14 wins in primary contests. He picked up the backing Tuesday by the AFL-CIO's Building and Construction Trades Department (search).
But support for Kerry has evolved for the blue-collar unions, which lined up behind Missouri Rep. Gephardt mostly because of his opposition to global trade agreements that have devastated their memberships in the past decade. Kerry has voted in favor of the agreements.
"We've discussed with him areas where we've had challenges in the past, like on trade," Caldwell said. "We've reached a working agreement with him on those issues."
For instance, Kerry has pledged to include "meaningful labor protections in future trade agreements," Caldwell said.
The Teamsters in particular have been forced to overcome hostile feelings toward Kerry, who led the fight against opening an Alaska wildlife refuge to oil drilling, a proposal by President Bush that the union supported to create jobs.
The union's battle with Kerry escalated after his office organized a rally at the Capitol to oppose the oil drilling, featuring a Teamster from Alaska wearing a union hat and T-shirt. Teamsters officials at the time were outraged, calling the stunt a slap in the face. Some even threatened that the union would sit out the election if the Massachusetts senator won the Democratic nomination.