WASHINGTON — UNITE HERE, the apparel and textile industry’s main union, endorsed Sen. Barack Obama (D., Ill.) for president on Wednesday, embracing his message of change and emphasis on protecting the American worker.

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.”

This story first appeared in the January 10, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

That sensitivity may have cost Hillary Clinton an endorsement from UNITE HERE, although she has tried to distance herself from her husband on the issue, saying NAFTA is “not working” and should be fixed.

Obama has said he would review NAFTA, bring the leaders of Mexico and Canada to the table to try to “fix” it and add “enforceable” measures to the trade accord.

“I have heard your call for reform and share your frustration with the trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement that are not working for American workers,” Obama wrote in a letter to the Iowa Fair Trade Campaign, a coalition of unions and other organizations, before last week’s Iowa caucus, which he won. “While NAFTA gave broad rights to investors, it paid only lip service to the rights of labor and the importance of environmental protection.”

Obama voted against the Central American Free Trade Agreement that passed and was signed into law, and for a trade deal with Oman. He has repeatedly said he supports overhauling and expanding a trade assistance program that provides financial aid for workers who lose their jobs because of international trade, as well as stronger labor and environmental protections in trade agreements and an expansion of antidumping duty laws in relation to undervalued currencies.

UNITE HERE’S endorsement of Obama marked a setback for former Sen. John Edwards (D., N.C.), whose father worked in a textile mill and who has walked picket lines with workers in the Carolinas, courting the union vote. UNITE HERE endorsed Edwards in 2004.

Edwards has lost momentum in this year’s presidential race, placing second in Iowa and third in New Hampshire. Raynor said those defeats were among the factors considered in the final decision.

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