When the AFL-CIO asked each of the Democratic presidential candidates to participate in a separate labor town hall meeting, John Edwards quickly chose Seattle as his preferred venue. He was determined not to repeat his mistake of 2004, when he did almost no campaigning in the Northwest. The price he paid was high: finishing fourth in the crucial Washington caucus behind minor candidate Dennis Kucinich.
So here was Edwards on May 1, very early in the 2008 cycle, appearing before a wildly enthusiastic crowd of 800 unionists in a Seattle machinists hall. He desperately wanted labor’s endorsement and its vote. “In the midterms, we delivered twenty-six legislative seats,” says Dave Freiboth, head of Seattle’s King County Labor Council, “more than anywhere else in the country. Candidates are paying attention.”
And it’s a two-way street. This year, more than ever, organized labor is striving to push its agenda hard and early in the presidential race. In March the nation’s largest healthcare union and richest PAC, the Service Employees International Union, summoned the contenders to Las Vegas for a debate on healthcare (and the union has given them an August 1 deadline to submit specific plans). The AFL-CIO is sponsoring its own series of one-on-one town halls with the candidates, culminating in August, when the Democratic rivals will appear together before a federation gathering in Chicago. “Working families will have the chance to ask candidates what they will do to make America work for working families,” said AFL-CIO president John Sweeney.
Sometime after Labor Day the unions in both major federations, the AFL-CIO and the SEIU-dominated Change to Win Coalition, are expected to make their official endorsement, opening the floodgates for tens of millions in contributions and thousands of campaigning union foot soldiers.
Edwards, currently running third in most polls, has spent the past two years quietly but meticulously laying the groundwork for becoming labor’s candidate, hoping to ride that rail straight to the nomination. He’s been walking picket lines, supporting organizing drives and speaking out on union issues. He’s taken his 2004 stump speech decrying the “two Americas” and tried to give it practical expression in support of the poorer side of the equation.
No surprise, then, that Edwards repeatedly and emphatically reminded the Seattle town hall of just how deep that commitment has become, insisting that unlike traditional Democrats, who merely seek union support, he has adopted a view that American prosperity can expand only if unionization expands. “It doesn’t matter who I’m speaking to,” Edwards told the crowd. “I talk about this issue wherever I go, whoever the audience is. I’ve talked about these organizing issues in front of Chambers of Commerce…and I think we desperately need comprehensive labor law reform.” That line provoked the fourth standing ovation of his pitch.