Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Barack Obama, Bill Richardson and Christopher Dodd each had a similar message for organized labor Monday: "Vote me into the White House, and I'll restore the power of the labor union."
The five Democratic presidential candidates each spoke for 30 to 45 minutes before an audience of nearly 2000 enthusiastic SEIU members, touching on labor issues, healthcare, and the war in Iraq. The event was a tryout of sorts to secure the endorsement of the union and its 1.9 million members.
"We have been absolutely clear with presidential candidates," said SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger. "All we want to know is: Do they stand with working families?"
And the candidates answered the challenge. Clinton repeated her plan for universal healthcare, which she unveiled earlier in the day in Iowa. She also chastised President Bush for ignoring the needs of union workers and their families.
"He thinks unions have no place in America," she said. "When he sees a union bug, he wants to call the exterminator."
Senator Obama built the crowd up to an explosion of cheers and applause several times in his 40-minute speech. He touted his experience working alongside SEIU in Chicago. He then piled on the criticism of President Bush but reached back even more, taking a veiled shot at Bill Clinton, who was criticized for turning his back on labor unions when he pushed NAFTA in the 1990s.
"It's time we had a president who didn't choke saying the word 'union,'" said Obama, "And by the way, it's time we had a Democratic nominee after the primary who doesn't choke saying the word 'union' either."
The audible excitement for Obama was matched only by Senator Edwards's supporters. Interrupted several times by repeated "ED-WARDS!" chants, the former senator showed why he secured the endorsements of the Steelworkers, Mineworkers, and Carpenters unions in recent weeks. He received a rousing ovation for his promise to revoke Congress's health coverage if they don't pass universal healthcare within six months of his first day in office. And he received perhaps the loudest response of the day with one of his favorite lines for union audiences on the campaign trail.
"If it becomes necessary to go out on strike," he began, "when you're walking that picket line, nobody – nobody – should be able to take that job from you, not in the America when I'm President of the United States."
Even the lower-tiered candidates Richardson and Dodd received an energetic response from the partisan audience. Richardson stressed his pro-labor record as governor of New Mexico. And Dodd pointed to his work on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Following the conference session, members were asked to submit their favorite candidate in an informal straw poll. It is expected that the results of the poll will have a heavy influence on the union's official endorsement.