Published February 19, 2004
WASHINGTON – The Teamsters (search), which had snubbed John Kerry (search) for his support for trade agreements, contends that the Democratic front-runner is evolving on the issue and has the best chance of beating President Bush, union President James P. Hoffa (search) said Wednesday.
"He might not be there yet, but I think the more he campaigns, the more he realizes this entire election is going to come down to jobs," Hoffa said in an Associated Press interview. "I think he's moving towards that. Everybody evolves."
Kerry, who recently secured the Teamsters' backing, will get the endorsement of the AFL-CIO (search) at a Thursday meeting of union leaders. They are eager to show a united front headed into November's election after a bruising primary that used millions of labor dollars and exposed deep cracks in the movement.
The AFL-CIO is comprised of 64 unions that couldn't agree on a single Democrat candidate until most of them had dropped out of the race.
The federation's largest union, the 1.6 million Service Employees International Union, had endorsed Howard Dean, who dropped out of the race Wednesday. SEIU President Andy Stern said he would not oppose a Kerry endorsement from the AFL-CIO, but his union would not make its own decision until next week.
"Our only concern is that Howard Dean ended his campaign today, and our process involves talking to our leaders, activists and members. We're beginning that discussion today," Stern said.
The litmus test for the Teamsters and other industrial unions in the Democratic primary had been the opposition to trade agreements, which they blame for eroding their memberships and sending millions of jobs to other countries. Dick Gephardt was the beneficiary of their support.
But the Missouri congressman left the race after a poor showing in the Iowa caucuses, and the 19 unions that formed the Alliance for Economic Justice had nowhere else to go.
Kerry had voted in favor of the North American Free Trade Agreement, for elevating China's trading status and for giving presidents more authority in negotiating such agreements — all black marks on the Teamsters' scorecard.
Why would the 1.4 million-member Teamsters support him?
"That's a legitimate question," Hoffa said. "And the answer is, he is evolving on this issue. I think he's sensitive to this issue. He has had women and men crying in his arms, saying, 'I lost my job to Mexico.' There's no way you can campaign without being affected by that."
Hoffa said Kerry has promised to include strong labor protections in future agreements and to create a commission that would review new trade deals.
The Teamsters, which flirted with President Bush in the early days of his administration, can waiver on the trade issue for a candidate with what Hoffa called "a total package" who can win in November.
John Edwards, who finished a close second to Kerry on Tuesday in Wisconsin, is "very impressive," Hoffa said. But he lacks what Kerry appears to have — "an electability factor."