CHICAGO — The labor movement showed what it is made of Aug. 7 at Soldier Field when 17,000 union members and their families challenged seven Democratic presidential candidates to explain to the nation how they will change things.

The biggest presidential debate in history was, however, only one event among several in which the AFL-CIO leadership further developed a working families agenda.

During their Aug. 6-8 executive council meeting here, union leaders set plans to deal with labor’s endorsement of presidential candidates, to overcome Republican roadblocks to easier union organizing, to ensure labor’s influence in the political arena well beyond the 2008 elections and to make universal health care for all Americans a reality.

A month ago, the council decided not to endorse a particular candidate and issued a statement declaring that member unions are free to endorse in the primaries if they wish. It is expected, of course, that virtually the entire labor movement will back the Democratic nominee in the general election.

In its statement issued the day after the presidential debate, the council praised all the contenders and said the 17,000 gathered at Soldier Field “had met with the next president of the United States and six other candidates.” The candidates at the gathering were Senators Joseph Biden, Hillary Clinton, Christopher Dodd and Barack Obama, former Sen. John Edwards, Gov. Bill Richardson and Rep. Dennis Kucinich.

“The Democratic candidates are strong on issues most central to working people’s lives,” the council statement read, but still need “continued engagement” from unions and their members “to promote full understanding of workers’ difficulties and dreams.”

The council continued: “It is clear that our members support a number of the candidates. Many of our members told us the candidates are impressive. For this reason the AFL-CIO has decided not to proceed with a decision process that would lead to support for a single candidate at this time.”

On the issue of the right of workers to choose union representation, the council noted that there is unanimous agreement among the seven Democratic presidential hopefuls on backing the Employee Free Choice Act. The bill would require companies to recognize and bargain with a union as soon as a majority of employees indicate by their signatures on cards that they want union representation.

The council went a step further, however, and urged member unions to demand that candidates disclose exactly how they would achieve passage of the EFCA, particularly since no one expects that, even with a Democratic victory, the right-wing will roll over and play dead on this issue.

The Employee Free Choice Act passed the Democratic run House this year 241-185, and then, despite winning a 51-48 majority vote in the Senate, stalled because the GOP garnered enough votes for a filibuster.

United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard, who was at the council meeting, said, “I don’t want someone who just says he or she will sign the EFCA into law. I want someone who will show how he or she is going to help quarterback it.”

The executive council also made it clear that labor’s involvement in the electoral arena will go well beyond the 2008 elections. Labor is getting ready to plunge into the battles for control of state legislatures, according to Karen Ackerman, the federation’s political action director.

“Unions won’t just concentrate on the top of the ticket. We’re looking at the legislatures now, with an eye towards redistricting after 2010, when lawmakers could re-draw state and congressional district lines to elect more worker-friendly candidates,” Ackerman said in an interview during the council meeting.

“And there may be more to come in the House, the Senate and among governorships,” she said. “After all, who would have thought at this time two years ago, that Virginia and Montana would be in play?” She was referring to two U.S. Senate races won by Democratic and labor-backed candidates James Webb and Jon Tester in Virginia and Montana, respectively.

On another key issue, the council decided to put universal, quality health care at the top of its national election agenda, putting it on a par with its drive to pass the EFCA.

The council did not, however, endorse specific health care legislation. Some of its member unions, including the Steelworkers, the California Nurses Association and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, back HR 676, which would set up a government-run, single-payer system that would cover everyone and eliminate private insurance companies altogether.

The council set up a special health care panel of union presidents to develop proposals for which plan the federation should support.