On Labor Day, the starting point for the mad rush to this winter’s Democratic presidential caucuses and primaries, several of the Democratic contenders could point to support they have received from the unions and union members that will be critical to securing the party’s nomination to challenge George W. Bush. By any measure, however, former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt owns the bragging rights. With the endorsement he received August 20 from the 300,000-member Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical & Energy Workers (PACE) International Union, Gephardt now claims the support of a dozen major unions.

Gephardt is backed by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters; the United Steelworkers of America; the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers; the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers; the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders, Blacksmiths, Forgers and Helpers; the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers; the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees; the American Maritime Officers; the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees; the Office and Professional Employees International Union; and the Seafarer`s International Union. That’s an impressive list, drawn from unions with long histories of friendly relations with Gephardt, the son of a St. Louis Teamster who during the presidencies of George Herbert Walker Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush positioned himself as labor’s best ally in Washington. “We know Gephardt,” said PACE President Boyd Young, when he announced his union’s endorsement. The ties between Gephardt and many labor leaders run deep, and they often run strong – having been forged in difficult struggles to block Congressional approval of trade pacts such as the North American Free Trade Agreement. When the 650,000-member steelworkers union endorsed Gephardt, it’s president, Leo Gerard, described the Missouri congressman as someone who “shares our deeply-held conviction that America’s trade policies are the cause of more than two million manufacturing jobs having been lost in recent years, and he has never failed to make the case, no matter the odds of victory.”

That’s high praise, indeed. But Gephardt will need more than kind words and the endorsements of a dozen unions to become “labor’s candidate” in 2004. To secure the support of the AFL-CIO, which provided early and essential backing to Al Gore in his race against Bill Bradley for the Democratic nomination in 2000, Gephardt needs the backing of unions representing two-thirds of the labor federation’s 13 million members. He does not have it now, and he’s unlikely to gain it by October, when a meeting of the AFL-CIO’s board, on which the president’s of the 65 unions that make up the federation sit, could make the designation.

Gephardt, whose slow-to-get-started campaign desparately needs the AFL-CIO endorsement to keep itself in contention, appears to be facing tougher than expected competition for the hearts and minds of union leaders and rank-and-file members. He’s got two big problems: His cozier-than-necessary relations with the Bush administration during 2001 and 2002, including his support for the resolution authorizing the president to wage war against Iraq, cost him a great deal of credibility. Also, there is a good deal of uncertainty about whether the Missourian has what it takes to beat President Bush in 2004. Several industrial unions with substantial memberships in key states — such as the United Auto Workers, a powerful force in the first-caucus state of Iowa and the early primary state of Michigan, as well as the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, which is strong in the Carolinas and New York — remain skeptical about Gephardt’s prospects. And the public employee and health-care sector unions that have some of the highest memberships among AFL-CIO affiliates — such as the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, as well as the American Federation of Teachers – appear to be even less enamored of Gephardt.

Massachusetts Senator John Kerry was, for a time, seen as a serious contender for SEIU and AFSCME support, just as he was considered to be in the running for an early endorsement from the independent National Education Association. And Kerry has shown strength in other sectors; just before national leaders of the Teamsters union endorsed Gephardt, its second largest local in the country — 20,000-member Local 705 in the Chicago area — split and endorsed Kerry. “We wanted to give an early endorsement to John Kerry because he has always been a friend to the working men and women we represent and because we believe that he is the best candidate to beat George W. Bush,” said Local 705 Secretary-Treasurer Jerry Zero.

But Kerry’s ability to present himself to unions as a frontrunner has been hampered by the surge of former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who now leads Kerry and the other candidates in polls from Iowa, New Hampshire, California and other key states. With his history of supporting corporate free trade pacts like the North American Free Trade Agreement, Dean has had to work hard to connect with organized labor and there is no chance that he will get an early endorsement from the AFL-CIO. But Dean has made inroads among union members. He drew a rousing response during a recent appearance before a gathering of the California Teachers Association, a powerful NEA affiliate that represents 335,000 educators and school employees in that state.

More than 100 Iowa labor activists signed onto newspaper advertisements set for publication in the Labor Day editions of the Des Moines Register. In Iowa, as in a number of other states, union members are ill at ease with George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, and Dean has won points with his anti-war rhetoric and his proposals for increases in domestic spending.

“If we can afford to rebuild Iraq, then we can afford t rebuild our country,” said Tom Gillespie, the president of the Iowa State Building and Trades Council, who signed the Labor for Dean ad.

With polls showing that Dean is already ahead of their man in Iowa, the Gephardt campaign responded to the Labor for Dean ad with a sharply-worded statement noting that, “Howard Dean was one of the leading governors to support NAFTA and even attended the initial White House ceremony with Canadian and Mexican leaders in 1993.”

While Gephardt can easily argue that he has a sounder record of supporting labor’s agenda than Dean, Gephardt cannot say that he has the best labor record among the nine Democratic contenders. Asked recently whether there was any candidate with a labor record to match Gephardt’s, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney answered, “Dennis Kucinich.”

Kucinich, the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, is even more passionate than Gephardt when it comes to criticizing NAFTA and other free-trade agreements. Kucinich, who carries a union card, says he wants to create “a workers’ White House” and promises to end US participation in NAFTA and the World Trade Organization. Those are big applause lines at union gatherings. Indeed, when Kucinich appeared in late August at the convention of the independent United Electrical workers union, he so impressed the delegates that they quickly passed a resolution that hailed Kucinich for “injecting into the primary process a sense of urgency with regard to the need to tackle the various crises facing working people, including the imperative to remove Bush from office in the November 2004 election.” Noting that UE has never made a presidential primary endorsement, the statement endorsed by the delegates added that, “we are, however, proud to strongly urge UE rank-and-file members to seriously consider [Kucinich’s] candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination.”

While the enthusiasm of the UE delegates was good news for Kucinich, no one is suggesting that he has a shot at winning the coveted AFL-CIO nod. “The only person who has a chance [of securing the AFL-CIO endorsement] at this moment is Dick Gephardt,” Service Employees International Union President Andy Stern said in August.

But, on a Labor Day weekend when he would have liked to be celebrated as “labor’s candidate,” Gephardt is still struggling to secure the support he needs to claim the AFL-CIO endorsement that will almost certainly make or break his candidacy.