SANTA MONICA, CALIF. -- Last Tuesday evening in Washington, White House hopeful Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) dined with AFL-CIO chief John Sweeney and about a dozen presidents of the labor organization's affiliates at Il Mulino, an elegant Italian restaurant.
Obama and all of the other Democratic presidential contenders are wooing Sweeney and other union leaders. Rival former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) has been the most overt in courting unions, but right now the nation's largest labor federations are looking for a winner, and Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) are the front-runners. With a labor-friendly Democratic field, it seems unlikely that any Democrat will pick up an early primary endorsement from either labor federation.
"They are all very good candidates," said Karen Ackerman, the political director of the AFL-CIO. "Everyone I know would be thrilled to stand behind any one of them."
On Tuesday, seven of the eight Democratic candidates will gather on a stage at Soldier Field -- in the north end zone -- for the AFL-CIO's Working Families President Forum. It's the latest in a string of Democratic forums and debates, different because the audience will be between 12,000 and 14,000 union members and their families, drawn from Chicago's extensive labor community and union activists from surrounding states.
The forum, moderated by MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, runs for 90 minutes, starting at 6 p.m. It will be televised live on MSNBC and XM satellite radio.
High threshold for endorsement
Republicans were invited to participate, but none filled out the required AFL-CIO questionnaire -- nor did the eighth Democratic candidate, former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel, a long shot.
On Wednesday, the AFL-CIO's Executive Council meets in Chicago, and "there will be a discussion of where we are in the endorsement process," Ackerman said.
The AFL-CIO has a very high threshold to meet for an endorsement -- two-thirds of its per capita vote. In 2004, Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) won the backing of 23 affiliates to three for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, two for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and one for Edwards. But there was no early AFL-CIO endorsement for Gephardt because even he did not get the required supermajority vote. Kerry was endorsed by the AFL-CIO in February 2005, after Kerry became the presumed nominee.
In the 2008 primary race, Obama has locked down major union backing from Chicago locals, while Clinton has equally powerful union friends in New York. Edwards lacks similar big-city labor clout.
Labor is a powerful force within the Democratic primary community, and the Democrats have been working hard to display their labor credentials. The AFL-CIO is planning a massive mobilization for the 2008 presidential election.
All of the Democrats back the Employee Free Choice Act, the pending legislation that would make it easier to organize in the workplace; all agree on the need for universal health coverage and labor-friendly trade policies.
2nd group also in no hurry
All of the rivals have sent their top campaign managers and strategists to brief the political directors of affiliates; each candidate has appeared at a AFL-CIO town hall meeting held in different cities across the country. Last May, at the AFL-CIO forum in Trenton, N.J., Obama said he would not shop at Wal-Mart.
Change to Win, a group that includes the Service Employees International Union, the Teamsters and five other unions, is also in no hurry to make an endorsement. They are holding a convention in Chicago in September, but that event is not likely to yield an endorsement.
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