Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama won the backing Jan. 9 of the 60,000-strong Culinary Workers Union in Nevada. The endorsement followed announcements by the 450,000-member parent union, Unite Here, and the national Plumbers and Pipefitters Union that they were backing the Illinois senator.

The decision by Culinary Workers Local 226 was significant because, as the representative of hotel, restaurant and laundry workers in Nevada’s casino industry, it is the largest and best organized labor group in the state, and 45 percent of its members are Latinos. Unite Here nationally, too, has an enormous Latino membership.

The union’s endorsement of Obama creates a basis for unity not only among labor, Latinos and African Americans but also among Asians, Native Americans, whites and women. All are significant components of the state’s workforce. This is seen as a welcome development when some in the race are promoting divisions.

One such divisive effort was made by supporters of Hillary Clinton in the Nevada State Education Association.

Caucuses in Las Vegas are held at casinos, allowing workers to vote without having to leave their jobs. The state education association filed a last-minute lawsuit to move the caucuses out of the workplace, stating it would give an unfair advantage to Culinary Union members. Apparently some Clinton supporters feared that allowing people to vote near their jobs would hurt their candidate because the union backed Obama. But many in the labor movement see pitting union against union (in this case culinary vs. teachers) as a harmful tactic in the overall fight to defeat the Bush agenda.

Over the past year, as part of an unprecedented effort by labor to impact the 2008 elections, the Culinary Workers have registered thousands of Latino voters. Latinos make up 25 percent of Nevada’s population but are under-represented on voter rolls.

Unite Here is the first major national union to endorse Obama. It signals that some in the labor movement see support for his campaign as important to building labor’s leverage in the elections.

The Plumbers union, an influential building trades union, is the first AFL-CIO union to back Obama. It is a multi-craft union with 340,000 members in 300 locals.

Obama has also picked up the endorsement of the Nevada chapter of the Service Employees International Union.

“What we have to make real is the ideal that in this country, we value the labor of every American,” Obama said as he accepted the union endorsements at a speech in Las Vegas. “We must respect that labor and reward it with a few basic guarantees — wages that can raise a family, health care if we get sick, a retirement that’s dignified, working conditions that are safe.”

The large vote for John Edwards also shows the importance of labor support not just in those states but across the country. Edwards continues to emphasize a strong anti-corporate message.

Clinton, who has significant union support including several big national unions, has strengthened her populist message against corporate greed. In addition she has support among women of all races and among Latino elected officials, especially in the delegate-rich state of California.

Unions are expected to register millions of voters this year, with special emphasis on African American, Latino, women and youth voters. The AFL-CIO registered 1.5 million voters in the off-year 2006 elections.

Although Clinton, Edwards and Obama are backed by different unions, labor is expected to unite behind the eventual Democratic nominee in a get-out-the-vote effort that surpasses past campaigns.

jwojcik @pww.org

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