John Edwards: Labor's Darling?
Since leaving office in 2004, former North Carolina senator John Edwards (D) has been relentlessly courting the most powerful progressive unions in the country in hopes of winning their support should he decide to run again for president in 2008.
Edwards has championed two causes close to labor's heart -- the fight against poverty and the need for raising the minimum wage -- and made himself available publicly and privately to state and national leaders of the Service Employees International Union and Unite Here -- a hotel and restaurant workers union -- among others.
"He has done more than any elected official or public persona to support our union efforts to organize ... since he left office," said Chris Chafe, Unite Here's chief of staff.
Edwards's public schedule for the past five months is filled with events for the labor community. On May 10 Edwards was in New York City alongside Dennis Rivera, the powerful head of the local SEIU chapter, to advocate for an increase in the minimum wage. Late last month Edwards joined Teamsters chief James Hoffa on the picket lines with janitors and contract workers at the University of Miami. On April 11, Edwards spoke at the United Mine Workers convention in Las Vegas. This was less than a month after appearing in Vegas to speak to the Change to Win Coalition, a renegade group of unions headed by SEIU that broke from the AFL-CIO earlier this year. He spent four days in February on the Unite Here hotel workers' organizing tour, with stops in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston.
In addition to his public advocacy for workers' rights, Edwards is also privately aiding labor's efforts, especially on raising the minimum wage. Five states -- Arizona, Ohio, Montana, Missouri and Nevada -- are likely to have minimum-wage initiatives on the ballot in November. Edwards has used the star power derived from his 2004 presidential bid to draw attention to the initiatives and raise money to fund them.
"My job is to -- number one -- bring attention to the issue so voters in the state know about it," Edwards said in an interview last month.
Perhaps the most important -- but least reported -- of Edwards's activities in the labor community are the small gatherings he holds with local leaders across the country. Chafe said that on a recent trip to San Franciso, Edwards spent 90 minutes with twelve Unite Here members.
"The impact of that on our membership is significant and well known because he actually listens," said Chafe. Another source close to the labor community said Edwards "can name [SEIU's] leaders in virtually any state and tell you when he last spoke to them."
Anna Burger, president of Change to Win, said Edwards regularly meets with members of her group across the country -- not to recruit them for his presidential campaign but rather to find out "what's going on around workers."
She added: "John Edwards is working hard to win the hearts and minds of not only local union leaders but national leaders as well."
In the 2004 presidential race, SEIU and the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees -- then two largest unions within the AFL-CIO -- issued a joint endorsement of former Vermont governor Howard Dean. At the time (mid-November 2003), the endorsements were seen as perhaps the final piece in Dean's winning formula because the two unions represented more than 30,000 workers in Iowa and 10,000 in New Hampshire, the first two states to choose delegates for the 2004 Democratic nomination process. (Former Missouri congressman Dick Gephardt had by far the most union support with more than 20 labor organizations backing his ultimately unsuccessful candidacy.)
While those endorsements ultimately failed to deliver Dean or Gephardt a win in either state, the support of organized labor remains highly coveted to anyone thinking about 2008. Edwards's spade work has established him as the buzz candidate in the labor community. While several sources were careful to caution that the early excitement will not necessarily translate into any broad-scale endorsement, there is little question that he has won himself considerable loyalty among the more liberal unions that make up the Change to Win Coalition.
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