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Dean Endorsement Weighs on Labor's Thinking

As they prepare for tonight's forum with Democratic presidential candidates in Chicago, leaders of two of the nation's biggest labor unions are drawing lessons from their disastrous decision to endorse Howard Dean's presidential bid in 2004. (AP).

CHICAGO -- Four years ago, two of the biggest unions in the country stunned the political establishment by joining together and endorsing Howard Dean for president. This year they are on divergent paths -- having drawn sharply different lessons from the 2004 experience

As the Democratic candidates gather for tonight's AFL-CIO debate at Soldier Field, the two unions reflect the competing philosophies inside the labor movement about endorsement strategies. Should they try to pick a winner, or reward candidates most committed to their agenda?

In November 2003, Gerald McEntee and Andy Stern pulled off what looked like a coup when they unexpectedly joined forces and put the muscle of their two unions -- the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) behind Dean's campaign.

Within three months, Dean's campaign had imploded and the union leaders were left to pick up the pieces. McEntee bolted in a public divorce with the candidate. On the way out the door, in an interview with Adam Nagourney of the New York Times, he described the candidate as "nuts." Stern loyally stood by the former Vermont governor until he pulled out of the race.

McEntee remains haunted by what happened. "I think it was a real learning experience for us," he said during a recent interview in his L Street office in Washington. "I think we jumped in when he was very popular in Iowa. But we didn't drill down far enough in terms of our own membership. It taught us that, as far as we can, find out where our members are, what kind of candidate they really want to support."

Another labor official said McEntee feels terribly burned by the experience. "I think he learned a very painful lesson," he said.

The SEIU came to the opposite conclusion. "Our members were very proud of the decision and very proud of the effort that they were engaged in," said Anna Burger, SEIU's secretary-treasurer, during a recent interview in her office overlooking DuPont Circle. "While they were disappointed in the results, they weren't disappointed by the decision to do it."

For the SEIU, finding a candidate who believes in labor's issues and in union workers is more important than picking someone because he or she is the likely winner of the nomination. Burger said when the SEIU membership was polled, that message came through clearly.

I asked Burger, "Isn't that good for John Edwards?"

"I think it is good for John Edwards," she said. "He's been very much out there on the street for working people."

Her comments came moments after she had criticized Hillary Clinton for being slow to put together a health care plan to achieve universal coverage. The SEIU set an Aug. 1 deadline for the candidates to release their plans. The interview with Burger came before that deadline, but Burger was then clearly frustrated with the Clinton campaign.

I asked what were the consequences of missing that deadline "I'm not sure that it's disqualifying," she said. "But I'm certain that it's disappointing. It's not that complicated."

The deadline passed last week without Clinton offering her health care plan. The union issued a release in Burger's name noting that Edwards, Barack Obama, Chris Dodd and Bill Richardson had met the deadline. "Senator Clinton has issued part of her plan, but we're still waiting to find out how many people she would cover and how she would pay for it," she said.

McEntee sees the choice as one of picking a winner. From his perspective, AFSCME could live with virtually any of the candidates on the issues -- although he too noted that Clinton's health care proposals need more fleshing out.

"On issues, we could probably live or be happy with any candidate," he said. "If that's the case, as we go through the issues and really take a long hard look at them, then it will come down to who can win. Who has the best chance of winning. Because [AFSCME members] want to get in the White House. They've been banged around and battered around by the Bush administration and one thing they all believe firmly, they don't want anybody even resembling Bush in the White House for four and or eight more years."

Since their joint endorsement of Dean in 2003, AFSCME and SEIU have gone separate ways within the labor movement. Led by Stern, SEIU and other unions bolted from the AFL-CIO and set up the Change to Win. McEntee's AFSCME stood by AFL-CIO president John Sweeney in opposition to Stern's defection.

Both unions are engaged in lengthy evaluations of the candidates that may -- or may not -- lead to endorsements. At this point, based on Burger's comments, Edwards has some advantage with the 1.9 million member SEIU. But Clinton has strong support from SEIU members in New York, and Obama has support from Illinois SEIU locals. That could stymie the union in the end.

Edwards appears to have less support at AFSCME, according to knowledgeable sources, in part because he is seen as more of a long shot for the White House. In 1992, McEntee sided with Bill Clinton in a surprise move. His ties with the former president remain strong -- Clinton has talked to McEntee a number of times to inquire about the details of their endorsement process -- and the New York senator has also made a point of courting McEntee.

But the president of AFSCME is mindful of his 1.4 million members and he's less likely to do what he did four years ago by taking a gamble with the union's endorsement.

The divergent paths of AFSCME and SEIU this year are, as a result, as interesting and important as their unexpected marriage was in 2003.

--Dan Balz

By Post Editor  |  August 7, 2007; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take  
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Unions are the best thing that ever happened to working men and women, why do you think the Bush administration and friend's hate them so much?

Just look at the facts, when unions were stronger, workers made a better living, now CEO's get fired for a bad job and receive millions in severance, give me a break and wake up.

Only the unions stand in the way of the super rich, so let's destroy them and workers will be left with no one to help them.

Posted by: kimostevens | August 28, 2007 1:50 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Balz, this is unfair: "McEntee bolted in a public divorce with the candidate... he described the candidate as "nuts." Your words are true but waaay out of context. As I recall, their argument concerned Dean's final 2004 primary (Wisconsin?). Dean was determined to compete and McEntee refused to spend labor money for GOTV. No divorce actually resulted. In Feb 2005, both McEntee and Stern actively supported Dean for DNC Chair and helped him get started with the 50-State Strategy. I read recently that John Sweeney supports Dean, too, and is actively working with him on 2008 Denver Convention problems. Labor and Dean are still very much married.

Posted by: CsueW | August 7, 2007 9:05 PM | Report abuse

Clinton is stupid. When are we going to realize that somebody who takes 800 thousand from the pharma industry, no longer has a health plan and loves lobbyists, whose husband pushed NAFTA is a Washington insider who does not represent change? Her husband stabbed the unions in the back and she is stabbing the progressives that put the demos in power squarely in the heart. After eight years of imbecility we're on the cusp of doing it again. The problem is not Demo or GOP it is an obsolete system that produces incompetent dishonest leaders election after election that are virtual dictators. We need not a change of leaders, but a change of government. Unfortunately this is not Britain.

Posted by: e_wode | August 7, 2007 7:39 PM | Report abuse

I find it hard to give credit to ANY organization who backs someone for president on ONE SINGLE ISSUE. People often laugh at pro-lifers who pick a candidate who shares that view (heck, we ARE talking about life and death), yet somehow campaigning for someone due to his view of unions is supposed to be OK? My 9 years of experience with a large teachers' union showed me that the union cared just about its employees and pay raises; what was REALLY important (kids in that case) was absent from the meetings. Unions today are just the polar opposite of adminstrators; they both are too big, too powerful, too greedy, too selfish and care too little about what is best for anybody but themselves. Oh, and sure...let's keep saying Edwards is out there working for the little man...with his mansions, millions, law practice and hedgefunds...too funny!

Posted by: McInnesmom | August 7, 2007 7:10 PM | Report abuse

***They are highly political organizations who throw their support and money at whoever shows them the best deal.***

You mean unlike corporate America?

Posted by: Jerryvov | August 7, 2007 6:13 PM | Report abuse

Labor is well represented in the government work force because governments generally believe they should abide by the laws of the land.

Private industry, on the other hand, frequently does not see any need to obey labor laws, and by and large the government law enforcers under Reagan, Bush, and Bush have agreed with them.

Posted by: jimk8mr | August 7, 2007 5:46 PM | Report abuse

Labor's been on the decline as the manufacturing base in the US has dried up. It's no slight coincidence that as you've seen the increase in global competition from imported goods--and the steady erosion of US manufacturing--you've also seen the size of labor's representation decrease. Fact is labor's time has largely passed because the economy is service based: they're not going to be representing mortgate brokers, and stock traders, and others in the service sector--outside of those in the hotel industry (SEIU's base). If nothing else, as teh work force gets more ducated, the more people feel they can get a better deal on their own rather than in a union. Labor is big in representing governemnt workers, because there's no competitior to weaken the influence of government--a la imported goods weakening manufacturing. Unions are no different than trade organizations for corporations which speak for corporate political interests. They're pretty much one in the same. If you hate the one, you have to hate the other.

Posted by: mdjd1997 | August 7, 2007 5:35 PM | Report abuse

The time for organized labor, indeed if there ever was one, has passed long ago. SEIU and AFCSME are the only growing unions - what does that tell us? That the Gov't is the biggest "exploiter" of labor and therefore most in need of unionization? NO! It tells us that SEIU and AFCSME are monopolistic, uncompetitive parasites who hide in gut of the animal capable of supporting them - Government. They are highly political organizations who throw their support and money at whoever shows them the best deal. Please stop the repulsive propoganda about them being friends of the working man!

Posted by: pgr88 | August 7, 2007 3:53 PM | Report abuse

Organized labor has Charlie Rangel. What more could they want?

Posted by: Tupac_Goldstein | August 7, 2007 3:40 PM | Report abuse

...and growing. It's now about 1.9 million.

Posted by: seanpcarr | August 7, 2007 3:22 PM | Report abuse

FYI - SEIU has more then 1.8 million members, not 1.3 million as the article states.

Posted by: thomasas | August 7, 2007 2:47 PM | Report abuse

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