Peel back the label of all the top Democratic presidential contenders, and they want you to see two words in big, bold letters: “Union made.”

The candidates weren’t soft-pedaling their support for organized labor at the Iowa Federation of Labor AFL-CIO convention in Waterloo on Wednesday.

They bragged about marching in picket lines. They each touted the labor movement as the thing that won American workers better wages, shorter work weeks, better working conditions and the like.

In various speaking styles, they pitched a revitalized labor movement as the key to winning reforms on big issues like health care.

And since union workers are a critical constituency for anyone who wants to win the Democratic nomination, they all went out of their way to bash President Bush’s record on workers’ issues, to call for making it easier for unions to organize, and to pitch ways to fix the country’s foreign trade deficit and create jobs.

At times, it was hard to find key differences among the Democratic contenders when it comes to issues affecting American workers.

But national front-runner Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton did try to reassure union voters who might be skeptical over her trade policies, considering that some union members are still upset over the North American Free Trade Agreement enacted when her husband, Bill Clinton, was president.

Hillary Clinton said people often ask her: “Are you for free trade or fair trade?”

“I say, ‘I’m for smart, pro-America trade,'” Clinton said, drawing applause.

Ahead of Wednesday’s gathering, Clinton launched television ads touting herself as the candidate for working people.

Former Sen. John Edwards leads the polls in Iowa, where he has aggressively courted the labor vote with a populist message aimed at helping workers and those in poverty.

On Wednesday, he spoke about marching in picket lines — recently and throughout his adult life.

“What has happened is we have a country that doesn’t value work anymore — we value wealth,” Edwards said.

And Sen. Barack Obama used the event to tout himself as a candidate who would bring new voters into the political process, helping Democrats compete in parts of the country long written off to Republicans.

Obama told the union organizers that in order to get big changes on issues like health care reform, “We’ve got to strengthen you.”

The lineup also included three candidates hoping to break into the top tier of Democratic contenders with the help of labor: Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

Below are brief summaries of their remarks:

Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut

— Dodd said declining wages, health care problems and struggles of average Americans were linked to the decline of the labor movement. He said he was the candidate with the “proven record” of standing up for working people.

— “It’s directly related to the decline of union households in our country. . . . Most of all we need someone who’s going to stand up, and has the proven record . . . of standing up and fighting for working people.”

Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina

— Edwards said that the tax system, trade agreements and the entire economic system these days favor the wealthy over average workers, and he called for bold, across-the-board reforms.

— “What has happened is we have a country that doesn’t value work anymore _ we value wealth.”

— To bring universal health care coverage, he and other candidates spoke of the need to confront the insurance and health care industries.

— “We’ll never see change, we’ll never see universal health care, unless we’re willing to stand up and fight these people. . . . We have to quit being nice. This is outrageous.”

Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware

— Asked to explain the origin of the problems facing working Americans, Biden tied his opposition to the costly war in Iraq with his opposition to the Bush administration’s labor policies.

— “Because this president has declared two wars. He declared one in Iraq and he declared another on labor. You are the middle class. If you’re going to grow the middle class in America, labor has got to grow.”

— Talking about trade issues and China’s large investment in America’s national debt, Biden drew laughs saying: “We have to get off that sucking off that breast which is China.”

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson

— Richardson touted his work as governor in New Mexico, where he helped make union wages into “prevailing wages” across the board.

— He made a bold prediction that his policies would help increase union membership — from the current 7 percent of the private-sector work force — to 17 percent by the end of his first term or 30 percent at the end of a potential second term.

— “I believe being a member of a union is good for American workers and is good for America.”

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York

— Clinton used her campaign theme that too many average workers have been “rendered invisible” by the government.

— “Productivity is up. Corporate profits are up, but the average family income isn’t. . . . What we’ve got to figure out how to do is making our economy work for everybody again.”

— Clinton said the low percentage of union membership “means it’s out of balance in America. Part of what we’ve got to do is get back into balance.”

— She bragged that she has one of the country’s best political strategists as a spouse (former President Clinton): “We understand how to beat national Republicans.”

Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois

— Obama said that one of his priorities was to teach Americans — including nonunion members — how the labor movement helps society as a whole by preventing the problems that happen when the middle class shrinks and too many people are left without health care, can’t afford higher education and are otherwise left behind.

— Obama said it will take a reinvigorated union movement to bring changes on things like universal health care, and said Republicans tried to destroy organized labor.

— “I look across this room, it’s clear they did not succeed.”

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(Contact M.E. Sprengelmeyer of the Rocky Mountain News at

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