The Service Employees International Union has postponed its presidential endorsement until next month, underscoring divisions within the powerful labor group over front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton, sentimental favorite John Edwards and latest star Barack Obama.
Each of the top-tier candidates has support within the 1.8-million member union that includes janitors, hotel workers and truck drivers. SEIU backing is one of the most important labor endorsements available, with the organization donating more than $25 million, mostly to Democratic candidates, since 1989.
Edwards has won over many of the union’s leaders, yet that hasn’t translated into an endorsement. The SEIU’s executive board has decided to wait until October before deciding which candidate to endorse, a spokeswoman said Tuesday.
“The executive board has decided to go back to the local members and ask their opinions before making a decision,” Stephanie Mueller said.
Edwards, the former North Carolina senator and 2004 vice presidential nominee, has spent considerable time the past couple of years walking picket lines, speaking out for workers’ rights and seeking labor support. He was joining United Auto Workers on the picket line outside a General Motors plant in Buffalo, N.Y., on Thursday.
An SEIU endorsement would have been a much-needed boost for him this week, creating excitement before this weekend’s third-quarter fundraising deadline and helping to energize a campaign stuck in a distant third place everywhere but the first-voting state of Iowa.
Backing the Democrat running third would be a risk for the SEIU, which endorsed Howard Dean in the last election before he lost in the primaries. But Edwards is a contender for an Iowa victory that could elevate his candidacy, especially combined with SEIU support.
Speaking Tuesday to the Change to Win labor federation, which includes SEIU, Edwards made an impassioned appeal in which he was frequently interrupted by standing ovations. He criticized the Clinton administration, a way to get at his rival, the former first lady.
“Back in the ’90s when we had a Democratic Congress and we had a Democratic president, we didn’t get universal health care,” Edwards said. “No, instead we got NAFTA followed by CAFTA followed by a whole series of trade agreements that cost America millions of jobs.
“God bless the other candidates. They are good people. But you are looking at the candidate for the president of the United States that will change this policy,” he said.
Edwards, his wife Elizabeth, and Kate Michelman, the former head of NARAL Pro-Choice America and an Edwards backer, made numerous personal calls to local SEIU officials urging them to support an endorsement now but to no avail, said one strategist familiar with the SEIU’s deliberations.
The strategist said there is significant sentiment for Edwards within the union, but Obama made a powerful impression with a rousing speech in Washington last week. The strategist was not authorized to speak for the union and agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity.
Clinton’s lack of majority support within the SEIU shows discomfort with the prospect of her nomination among some of the Democratic Party’s rank and file. She holds the edge in labor endorsements, but there are some doubts about whether she would get the SEIU’s backing, say officials involved in the talks.
Clinton was at a disadvantage in appealing to Change to Win when her plane was grounded in Little Rock, Ark., on Tuesday. She addressed the crowd by phone, but several seats were empty.
Her speech didn’t have the same effect as Edwards’ and Obama’s in-person appeals. She drew applause when she said UAW workers are “holding the line on the American dream.”
She focused her criticism on the Bush administration, saying it has “tried to essentially be the exterminator for the union bug.”
Obama argued that his ties to unions are deeper than two years of trying to win them over.
“I didn’t just discover working folks on the campaign trail,” he said. “That’s what I’ve been doing my entire adult life.”
Edwards elicited a standing ovation when he said his wife was walking the picket line with United Auto Workers in Grand Rapids, Mich., and that he soon will be doing the same.
Anna Burger, SEIU’s secretary-treasurer, singled out Edwards for praise when asked who has the edge.
“I wouldn’t say it was a three-way toss up,” she said earlier in the day. “Let’s be serious — John Edwards has been on the campaign, talking about the American dream and workers rights to organize.”
She denied that the union’s indecision is a setback for Edwards. “I think that the fair assessment is that we see this as an organic process with our members and with our leaders, and we wanted to make sure that we got to the right decision at the right time,” she said.
Change to Win is made up of seven unions that broke away from the AFL-CIO to form the rival labor federation two years ago over internal disagreements on how best to build organized labor’s membership and political clout.
Associated Press writers Jesse Holland and Jim Kuhnhenn in Washington contributed to this report.
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