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Edwards fails to capture endorsement from union

SEIU's decision shows skepticism about candidate

John Edwards addressed the 'Change to Win' labor convention on Sept. 25 in Chicago. Despite efforts to woo the backing of labor, he did not receive a major union endorsement. John Edwards addressed the 'Change to Win' labor convention on Sept. 25 in Chicago. Despite efforts to woo the backing of labor, he did not receive a major union endorsement. (M. SPENCER GREEN/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

John Edwards spent four years positioning himself to be labor's candidate, walking picket lines, helping workers organize, and folding duvets with hotel maids.

But his efforts did not secure the coveted backing of the 1.9-million-member Service Employees International Union, one of the country's largest labor federations, which decided last week not to make a national endorsement for the Democratic primaries.

The decision reflects skepticism about Edwards's ability to capture the nomination, as well as the influence of large SEIU memberships in Illinois and New York, which back their home-state candidates, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, respectively. The SEIU's move also shows the aggressive efforts by all the candidates to court labor and address their key issues.

"If you're not sure you have a winner, and you're going to tick off your own folks, then you have to stop and pause and ask whether it's worth it," said Joshua Freeman, a labor historian at the City University of New York.

Political analysts say Edwards had been counting on the SEIU endorsement to provide momentum and boost his credibility. Despite their declining membership, the ability of unions to organize workers, set up phone banks, and reach voters remain important assets. According to several labor leaders, SEIU was prepared to spend as much as $10 million for the primary, a sum that would have helped fill the void for Edwards, who has limited spending now that he has agreed to accept public financing, and trails Clinton in campaign cash as badly as he lags behind her in the polls.

The former North Carolina senator has wasted little time reacting to the setback. Just days after the SEIU said its state affiliates for the first time could begin making separate endorsements starting tomorrow, Edwards announced plans to triple his campaign staff in Nevada, a state with an early primary where labor is powerful. Yesterday, he met privately with SEIU leaders in New Hampshire. Tomorrow, he is expected to pick up SEIU backing in Iowa and other states.

"This is harder for the campaigns and a lot more work. The support is diffuse," said Gary Smith, president of the State Employees' Association of New Hampshire, SEIU Local 1984. "But now there is a lot more of a focus by candidates at the state level and our members love the attention."

The piecemeal endorsements will allow other candidates to swoop in and gain support in their areas of strength.

"The endorsement was always a dogfight. From our perspective, the strategy of other campaigns to stop any endorsement failed outright," said Chris Kofinis, a spokesman for the Edwards campaign. "They were concerned the grass-roots support was for Edwards."

SEIU secretary-treasurer Anna Burger said in an interview that having candidates from states with large union membership, including New York and Illinois, made it difficult to reach the high threshold required for the union backing. Unlike last year's endorsement, which required a majority of the executive board, candidates needed backing from a majority of the board representing 60 percent of the members.

For Edwards, the absence of a national SEIU endorsement will likely have ripple effects on the decisions of other unions, according to political observers. Months ago, leaders of Change to Win, a coalition of seven unions totaling 6 million members, including SEIU and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, thought they could make a unanimous endorsement for the primary. In August, Edwards had already clinched one of the coalition's unions, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, with 500,000 members. But the SEIU decision makes a single endorsement by the coalition unlikely, said Change to Win spokesman Chris Ortman.

So far, Edwards has backing from unions representing more than 2 million members, but he is well behind Clinton, who has won support from national and regional unions totaling almost 4 million members.

Gerald W. McEntee, president of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, said many unions have implemented a more rigorous endorsement process following the 2004 campaign, when labor moved early to back former Vermont governor Howard Dean, only to see him drop out early in the nomination race.

AFSCME, which spent more than $5 million during the primary season to support Bill Clinton during the 1992 campaign, hopes to have an endorsement by early November. McEntee said Edwards has fought and solicited strength within the labor movement, but concerns remain about his place in the polls and heavy reliance on winning in Iowa to gain momentum nationally.

"What we're looking for in the last analysis, when the candidates are so close in terms of policy positions, is who is electable," he said.

Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com.

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