On what was, undoubtedly, the most important day so far for his campaign for the presidency, John Edwards arranged to take time away from shaking hands with actual voters in the critical state of South Carolina to meet with a group of people who could not vote in that state, nor in any of the half dozen others that held primaries and caucuses on Tuesday.
Yet, the people with whom Edwards agreed to meet could hold the power to decide whether the North Carolina senator really will be able to mount a serious challenge to frontrunner John Kerry in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. They were the leaders of several of the industrial unions that backed the failed candidacy of Dick Gephardt. Though they could not deliver for the former House Minority Leader, who ran a weak fourth in the January 19 Iowa caucuses and then withdrew, the more than 20 unions that backed Gephardt are finding that the doors of the remaining Democratic contenders remain very much open to them.
For Edwards, who won South Carolina’s primary and posted solid second-place finishes in several of the other states that voted Tuesday, support from just a few of those unions — particularly the 1.4-million member International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the 700,000-member United Steelworkers of America union — could provide him with the infrastructure he needs to compete in northern industrial states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Illinois. It is in these states that Edwards will in coming weeks be under pressure to nationalize what some analysts still dismiss as a southern regional campaign, and union backing could make all the difference.
“With the Teamsters and a few other unions pulling for him, Edwards might be able to secure some upsets and really emerge as the alternative to Kerry,” said a veteran labor leader from the upper Midwest, who backs none of the candidates at this point. “But, without them, I don’t see how Edwards can build the organization he needs to take this thing national.”
The industrial unions like Edwards. To their view, he’s got a significantly better record on the international trade issues that are so vital to union members who have seen hundreds of thousands of jobs eliminated, as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement and Permanent Most-Favored Nation Trading Status with China. Edwards has never been so passionate a critic of the corporate free-trade agenda as Gephardt, who helped organize Congressional opposition to NAFTA and the granting of “Fast Track” authority to negotiate a sweeping Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement, or Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio. But, as far as labor is concerned, Edwards has a far better record than Kerry, whose support for free trade agreements has been almost as consistent as that of Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, the corporate-friendly Democrat whose miserable showings in Tuesday’s primaries and caucuses ended his presidential run.