The union threw its support to the first-term senator a day after Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's (D., N.Y.) surprise victory over Obama in the New Hampshire Democratic primary and as the two main rivals for the nomination head into a four-week period in which 25 states will vote. The race for the White House has become one of the most unpredictable and wide-open presidential contests in recent history.
"Obama represents a fresh voice," Bruce Raynor, general president of the union, said in an interview. "He's got vision and a high level of morality and he is in this for the right reasons."
Raynor cited Obama's background as a community organizer on behalf of steel workers in Chicago affected by globalization. Obama's positions on trade policy and the effects of globalization on U.S. workers resonated with UNITE HERE's members and executives, Raynor said.
The union has 460,000 active members and 400,000 retirees. UNITE HERE traces its roots to the ILGWU and was formed in 2004 with the merger of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial & Textile Employees and the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees International Union. While its core in apparel and textiles dwindled in the last 20 years, UNITE HERE represents 110,000 apparel and textile manufacturing, retail and distribution center workers, with the balance employed in industrial laundries, casinos, airport concessions and restaurants, among other businesses.
"He understands firsthand the effects of industrialization [and globalization]," Raynor said. "He's pro-worker, but that doesn't mean he's antitrade. I am confident Sen. Obama has a view that is close to ours on those issues."
A defining moment for organized labor groups regarding U.S. trade policy came with former president Bill Clinton's support of the North American Free Trade Agreement between the U.S., Mexico and Canada, which Clinton signed and which was enacted in 1994.
"It was a deep wound to the psyche of the American worker," said Raynor, charging that millions of U.S. jobs have been lost as companies relocated to Mexico. "NAFTA and [permanent normal trade relations] for China were disastrous trade treaties. We're pretty sensitive on that issue."