Three Dems put on union label in Chicago

Two Democratic presidential candidates appeared in Chicago today to make their pitch to yet another union convention - and one additional candidate phoned in - even as one of the nation's most influential unions has decided to not endorse any of them for now.

"I'm tired of playing defense," Sen. Barack Obama told about 1,000 union members gathered at the Chicago Hilton. "We are ready to play offense for a living wage and good jobs. We're ready to play offense for some comprehensive immigration reform."

The Illinois Democrat was the first of the top three Democratic candidates to speak to the Change to Win group of unions. He was followed by former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York phoned in, after she was forced to cancel a personal appearance because of transportation problems.

Obama reminded the audience that he has walked picket lines before as a community organizer and candidate.

"I've got some comfortable shoes at home. If it's hot outside, then I've got a hat. If it's cold outside, I've got a jacket," Obama said. "But if you are being denied your rights, I don't care if I'm in the United States Senate or in the White House, I will make sure I am marching with you on the picket lines because that's what I believe in. I don't mind walking. I'm young. I'm in good shape."

During a meeting in Chicago on Monday, the executive board of the Service Employees International Union decided not to endorse any of the presidential candidates at this time. Democrats covet that endorsement because the union is large, growing and politically active.

The decision by S.E.I.U. not to endorse now made it difficult for Change to Win, a rival of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. labor federation, to endorse anyone today at its convention.

"We're not making a decision today," Anna Burger, the convention's chair and the secretary-treasurer of the S.E.I.U., told reporters.

Burger said it would not be fair to describe the endorsement process as being a "three-way toss up" between Edwards, Obama and Clinton.

She initially spoke glowingly about Edwards. But when asked whether that praise meant he had the inside track for an endorsement, she said she could "also speak glowingly" about the others.

"We said this is an organic process with our members and with our leaders and we want to make sure we that make the right decision at the right time," she said.

Edwards appeared undaunted by the lack of an endorsement and noted his wife, Elizabeth spent the morning at a United Auto Workers' picket line in their strike against General Motors. Edwards challenged the union members to ask themselves which of the Democratic contenders would truly represent their interests in the White House.

"It is easy to speak in front of unions about unions. The question is, 'Do you really believe? Are you a true believer?' The test of a true believer is if you talk about it everywhere," the former North Carolina senator said.

"If you want to ask yourself who will actually do what I've been talking about…the test of that is who's been there in the trenches. The test of that is who talks about unions and organizing," he said.

Edwards reiterated his support for restrictions on trade policy to include environmental and labor protections and restated his push for universal health care. He maintained that union members should be negotiating wages and pensions, not the cost of health care.

He also took a veiled shot at Obama's health care plan since, unlike the Edwards and Clinton plans, would not mandate that individuals obtain health insurance.

"For anybody running for president, their first question ought to be, is it universal?" Edwards said. "What man, what woman in America is not entitled to health care? What child is not worthy of health care?"

Edwards also turned to a familiar criticism of Clinton for her acceptance of campaign donations from a health care industry that he maintains would actively block attempts to create a universal health care plan.

"By the way, you still have a chance to ask one of those candidates the question" about accepting industry donations, Edwards told the group.

"I think the only way you really bring about serious change, first of all, you don't defend the corrupt system in Washington that needs to be changed," he said.

Clinton was forced to cancel her scheduled in-person appearance and phoned into the event after she said air-traffic control in the Memphis region had shut down air traffic, preventing her from leaving Little Rock, Ark., and a 50-year commemoration of the Little Rock 9 who integrated the city's Central High School.

But the former first lady and current New York senator echoed the comments of the other Democratic contenders in voicing support for legislation that would make it easier for workers to organize.

"What you do is not only about your members, it's not even just about the American labor movement," Clinton said. "It is about the middle class of the country. It's about the American dream."

Clinton maintained that the Bush White House had created an era of anti-unionism.

"They think unions have no place in America and they essentially tried to be the exterminators of the union bug," Clinton said before reverting to a frequent campaign theme that various sectors of society—this time, the middle class—"have been invisible to the president."

Though the North American Free Trade Agreement was created under her husband's presidency, Clinton noted her opposition to the Central American Free Trade Agreement and extending fast-track authority for presidential trade negotiations. She also noted the need to create protections for American workers in trade pacts.

Like Edwards, Clinton said it was time to end the "bottleneck" of union negotiations by creating a universal health care program and said she believed people are more cognizant of the need compared to her failed efforts as first lady 15 years ago.

During Obama's speech, top Edwards advisor Joe Trippi stood in the back of the room, trying to keep from smiling during a funny story Obama tells about a visit to a small South Carolina town (previously Swamped here).

Later, Trippi said he remains confident that Edwards can win the endorsement.

"You've got to let the internal processes of any union play out," he said. "We feel very good about the case we have made and the work we have done and his record."

Change to Win claims six million workers and includes the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Laborers’ International Union of North America, Service Employees International Union, UNITE HERE, United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, United Farm Workers of America, and United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

Prior to the candidate speeches, the union group presented results from a poll it commissioned about the "American Dream."

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said two-thirds of voters nationwide believe that the "American Dream" is getting harder to achieve.

"Voters are anxious that they will not be part of the American Dream," she said. "Voters want change in this election."

Lake said the poll of 800 randomly selected registered voters shows they "believe there is a clear role for government in restoring the American Dream."

The Republican National Committee issued a brief response to the appearance of the presidential candidates before the union group.

“Instead of pandering to win endorsements from big labor bosses, Democrat candidates should be explaining to rank-and-file union members why they are going to raise their taxes and cut funding from our troops overseas," the statement said.


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