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Democratic '08 Presidential Candidates Hunt for Union Backing

They can be found rallying union workers, walking picket lines or helping sign up new members. Democrats running for president are after something else this time of year: the endorsements of the oh-so-important labor unions.

"Wherever I am, I talk about the importance of organizing," John Edwards told the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers after writing letters urging R.J. Reynolds Co. employees to join up.

Edwards isn't alone in courting labor to get a push in the early primary states.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, begins union speeches with "Solidarity Forever!" Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., advocated for union nurses fighting for a new contract at Finley Hospital in Dubuque, Iowa, in April. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., relocated an important Chicago fundraiser because it had been booked in a nonunion locale.

"We think that it's really important for candidates not only to talk the right talk but actually walk the right talk," said Anna Burger, secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union, which has nearly 2 million members nationwide and a large membership in the early voting states of Iowa and Nevada.

More than for any other interest groups, Democratic candidates line up to participate in union presidential forums, like the AFSCME one on Tuesday, or the 10-million member AFL-CIO's candidate forums, in which candidates speak in town hall-style formats in different cities, to curry favor.

Unions place a high value on that face time.

"If someone says, 'I don't care enough about your organization to come and talk to you,' that might knock them out," said Edward J. McElroy, president of the American Federation of Teachers, whose executive council held private interviews with five of the Democratic candidates in May and plans to do more in July.

National Education Association President Reg Weaver points out even today that Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry didn't come to their representative assembly. Kerry had a good reason, though. It was the same day he announced that Edwards would be his running mate, Weaver said.

Still, it "really, really did not sit well with people," said Weaver, who expects six or seven candidates to show up at the meeting in Philadelphia the first week in July.

Despite their shrinking numbers, union support is still vital for Democrats.

Last year, there were 15.4 million union members, making up 12 percent of the work force. That's down from a high of 21 million union workers in 1978.

But organized labor is still a key fundraising target for Democrats. In the 2004 elections, organized labor gave $53.6 million to Democratic candidates and party committees in a losing effort to capture both the White House and Congress, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Unions expect to surpass both numbers for the 2008 elections, an amount any of the Democratic candidates would covet. Yet the money is only one aspect, said Richard Hurd, professor of labor studies at Cornell University.

"More important is the people to work on the ground campaigns. That's where the labor movement excels," Hurd said. "And even though the numbers have declined in terms of labor's membership, the effectiveness of unions at getting their members to volunteer and work on campaigns and turning out members and actually influencing the votes of nonmembers, all of that has improved."

Despite all the candidates' wooing, there's no guarantee that the major unions will endorse anyone, at least before the Democratic primary is over.

They don't have a great track record of picking a winner recently: The only union endorsing Kerry early in his 2004 run for president was the International Association of Fire Fighters. Most instead endorsed former Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt or former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, neither of whom made it out of the early primaries.

"The risk with an early endorsement is that the early endorsement flames out, and you're left with no one owing you anything," said Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University.

The AFL-CIO, the nation's largest federation of labor unions, didn't endorse anyone in the primary last time. Its rules say two-thirds of the individual unions that make up the AFL-CIO must agree on a candidate before an endorsement, and that didn't happen.

Other unions seem to be considering that route.

"With so many friends of labor on the Democratic side, we have not determined whether or not we will move forward with an endorsement process at this time," said Bret Caldwell, spokesman for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

Added McElroy: "Part of this is electability. Everybody wants to be in on the right horse. But I'm not as worried about that as I am worried about making sure that whoever we end up behind is basically in support of the values we hold near and dear, and also is somebody who can win."