Think "American Idol: Organized Labor Edition."
To reach the final round of judging for an endorsement from the Service Employees International Union, Hillary Rodham Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama had to survive a series of trials: videotaped interviews with the rank and file, speeches to the union's political wing, submission of a detailed healthcare plan, and "Walk a Day in My Shoes" events in which six Democratic hopefuls shadowed a janitor, teacher, nurse, or other union worker.
The hunt for the union's endorsement culminates Tuesday with speeches at a Chicago convention and is part of an open and aggressive courtship of labor unseen on the campaign trail for more than two decades, labor leaders and analysts say.
Senator Obama joined striking workers outside a Chicago hotel in July and later led Nevada culinary workers in chants of "Fired Up, Ready to Go." Senator Clinton told a firefighters' union in March, "It is absolutely essential to the way America works that people be given the right to organize and bargain collectively." Mr. Edwards, a former senator from North Carolina, has campaigned for minimum-wage initiatives in a half dozen states and said at the AFL-CIO debate last month that he had walked 200 picket lines in the past two years.
"There's little question that all of the candidates are much more open, aggressive, and comfortable talking about and embracing the labor movement," says Harold Schaitberger, president of the 281,000-member International Association of Fire Fighters, which recently endorsed Sen. Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut. "In the past, candidates would be more inclined to talk about 'worker issues,' 'rights of employees,' 'the middle class.' The word 'union' or 'labor movement' – that wasn't as much in their vocabulary."
Stephanie Mueller, a spokeswoman for the 1.9 million-member Service Employees International Union, says, "We've never had this kind of experience before with candidates."
Talk of unions fell from favor, analysts say, after the AFL-CIO's endorsement of Walter Mondale in the 1984 presidential race drew charges from rivals that he was beholden to "special interests."
By 1992, when Democrats looked as if they might again seize the White House, "there was a feeling at least among the 'New Democrats' " – a centrist group that included Bill Clinton – "that labor was out of touch and was part of the old liberal line that had lost them elections in the past," says Peter Francia, a political scientist at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., and author of "The Future of Organized Labor in American Politics."
Labor's political bounce this year comes as union membership continues to slide. Some 12 percent of US workers belonged to unions in 2006, down from more than 20 percent in 1983, according to federal figures.
To counter the loss, unions have devoted a growing share of their budgets to political activity. With new high-tech tools to communicate with members and identify the undecided, they are more effective than ever at propelling members to the polls, say labor leaders and outside experts.
Some 24 percent of voters in the 2004 presidential election were from union households, up from 19 percent in 1992, according to exit poll data. In 2006, a record 74 percent of AFL-CIO members who voted backed a union-endorsed candidate, says Karen Ackerman, the organization's political director.
The attention from presidential candidates this year is not surprising, she says: "It comes from the fact that we have a stronger, bigger political program and that over the last several cycles, we've proven we can get out the vote."
The AFL-CIO announced Friday that it would spend a record $53 million and deploy 200,000 volunteers to mobilize voters for next year's races. "Our members are building an army to make more calls, knock on more doors, and turn out more voters than ever," Gerald McEntee, chair of the AFL-CIO's political committee and president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said in a statement.
So far this year, Clinton has picked up national endorsements from five unions; Edwards, four; and Dodd, one.
The AFL-CIO is unlikely to reach the necessary two-thirds support of members to make an endorsement in the primary. That makes the SEIU endorsement one of the primary season's plum prizes. "If one of the candidates got that kind of boost, it could make a significant difference," says Richard Hurd, a labor studies professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
In 2004, the Democratic candidates with the most labor endorsements – then-Rep. Richard Gephardt and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean – flamed out early. This time, many unions are putting candidates through a lengthier set of interviews and public forums.
"We're going to take the temperature and pulse of our membership more this time around," says Terry O'Sullivan, general president of the 500,000-member Laborers' International Union of North America, which endorsed Mr. Gephardt in 2004.
To stay relevant, a few unions have grown pragmatic about their members' political diversity. A third of the members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers are Republican, and for the first time in its 119-year history, it endorsed a Republican – former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the only GOP candidate to appear at its forum – as well as a Democrat.
"For the last seven years, we've been shut out from having any contact with this White House," says its communications director, Rick Sloan. "Whether you agree with [Republican leaders] or not, the inability to have any conversation at all is a disaster."
In Philadelphia in July, seven Democratic candidates and one Republican – Mr. Huckabee again – spoke at an annual meeting of the National Education Association, which has yet to make an endorsement. Never before in memory had candidates appeared at the meeting without an advance endorsement, says Reg Weaver, president of the 3.2 million-member teachers' union.
Still, Mr. Weaver brushes aside the notion that candidates are significantly more attuned to unions. "I don't know if they're paying more attention to labor," he says. "They're paying attention to anybody who has a large block of votes."