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Labor Pains for John Edwards

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Marc Cooper is a special correspondent and the editorial coordinator for OffTheBus, a collaboration between the Huffington Post and To read more OffTheBus campaign coverage, click here.

The John Edwards campaign suffered a major reversal last night by failing to win the endorsement of America's largest labor organization, the 1.9 million member Service Employees International Union.

The top leadership of the SEIU met all day Monday in Chicago to consider who to back in the Democratic primaries but decided to postpone any formal endorsement. For at least two years Edwards has been laboring to line up union support which his strategists see as crucial to any realistic chance to capture the Democratic nomination. "John had been counting on the unions as a sort of super-charger, an after-burner," said a California operative of the Edwards campaign. "But now we are in danger of a flame-out."

The boost sought by Edwards --and now on the verge of being denied-- could have, indeed, been decisive. During the 2004 cycle, for example, the SEIU alone poured some $65 million of resources into the Democratic effort and deployed a veritable army of canvassers and precinct workers in the final days of the Kerry-Edwards campaign.

Monday's SEIU balk comes one week after the major Democratic candidates appeared in a Washington D.C. forum that brought together hundreds of union political organizers. Edwards had been a clear favorite of SEIU honchos including union chief Andy Stern and his next-in-line Anna Burger and he had stirred the union confab last week when he vowed: "I intend to be the best union president in the history of the United States."

But to Edwards' dismay, rival candidate Barack Obama --who appeared a couple of hours earlier-- also evoked a raucous, cheering reception when he asked the labor audience: "Who is talking about your agenda?...Who can change politics in Washington to make that a reality?"

Since the conclusion of the failed 2004 Democratic campaign, Edwards had been meticulously trying to build a solid, national union base. He walked endless picket lines, attended dozens of labor rallies and built strong personal relationships with top union leaders like Stern. His honed economic populist program was sweet music to union ears and six months ago an SEIU endorsement of Edwards seemed almost a slam dunk.

But Obama also boasts a long pro-union record, specifically working with SEIU locals in his home state of Illinois. As his campaign gained national traction so did his union support.

More importantly, the SEIU has pressing concerns to not view a re-run of what some of its membership considers the disaster of 2004. SEIU joined with the large AFSCME public employees union in an early endorsement of insurgent Howard Dean only to soon see the former Vermont Governor's campaign fizzle out and collapse in Iowa. "Believe me, nobody around here wants to see a repeat of that fiasco," says a regional SEIU political director who requested anonymity. "Once burned, you know the rest," he added.

SEIU officials are openly concerned that their once-favored Edwards is running a distant third in most national and state polls (with the exception of Iowa) and may no longer be a viable candidate, no matter how many union resources are poured into his campaign.

In addition, sentiment against Hillary Clinton runs high within SEIU ranks and some union officials are concerned that endorsing a third-running Edwards would only help split the national anti-Clinton forces. "Look, in the end, we're going to have to choose either Obama or Edwards if we want to stop Hillary," said the SEIU political organizer. "While Edwards might have been our first choice, Obama would also be great and he's looking like the most powerful challenger to Clinton."

The SEIU leadership seems anxious to make some sort of endorsement and will be meeting again in the second week of October where the matter is likely to be reconsidered. In the interim, the third quarter fund raising totals of each campaign will be disclosed and most guesstimates figure that Obama will be showing twice or three times the amounts garnered by Edwards. "We love John," said the SEIU official. "But politics is all about winning."