The biggest U.S. labor federation said on Wednesday it was too divided to make an endorsement in the 2008 Democratic presidential race, but freed its member unions to back any of the contenders.

The executive council of the AFL-CIO, an umbrella group representing 55 national labor unions, said it could not reach the required two-thirds consensus needed to throw its grass roots and financial muscle behind an individual candidate.

Top Democratic contenders Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards all enjoy significant pockets of support among organized labor, making the two-thirds threshold too hard to reach, labor officials said.

“It is clear that a number of the Democratic candidates have the experience and credentials to lead our nation,” the 47-member council said after a meeting to discuss the endorsement. “And it is equally clear that our members support a number of the candidates.”

The decision came one day after the Democratic contenders in the November 2008 election squared off in a debate before 17,000 enthusiastic union members in Chicago, with Obama, a senator from Illinois, and Clinton, a senator from New York, taking fire from rivals and battling each other over foreign policy and the influence of special interests.

The AFL-CIO had asked member unions to hold off on endorsements until after the executive council meeting. Labor officials said some individual unions would be ready to start making endorsements in the next few weeks.


Officials also did not rule out calling the council back for another try at a full endorsement later in the year, but said it was unlikely a consensus would emerge before primary voting starts in January.

“Two-thirds is a very high bar … it’s hard to get,” said Karen Ackerman, political director of the AFL-CIO. “Different unions have different interests and look at candidates in a different way.”

The full AFL-CIO has made an endorsement ahead of the Democratic primaries only twice — in 1984 when it endorsed Walter Mondale and in 2000 when it backed Al Gore.

Ackerman said enthusiasm for the Democratic candidates was high among union members and much of the council meeting was taken up with pledges to unite and prepare for the 2008 general election campaign against the Republican nominee.

Union support can offer crucial organizational muscle for candidates but its clout was called into question in 2004, when the two Democrats with the biggest labor backing — Howard Dean and Richard Gephardt — were beaten in the kickoff contest in Iowa and collapsed later.

This year Edwards, the party’s 2004 vice presidential nominee who trails Clinton and Obama in national polls and is locked in a three-way struggle with them in the crucial kickoff state of Iowa, has pushed particularly hard for union support.

All of the 2008 Democratic contenders back the key union priorities, including an expansion of health care coverage, more protections in trade pacts and a bill to make it easier to unionize workers.

The labor movement has faced challenges in recent years, including declining union membership and the 2006 split in the labor movement that saw seven unions leave the AFL-CIO to form the Change to Win federation.

But Ackerman said organizers in 2006 mobilized more than 13 million voters in 32 battleground states and nearly three-fourths of those voters backed the endorsed candidates.

Labor officials promise to top the $200 million spent in the 2004 general election.

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