DENVER — U.S. labor groups are playing a key role in Sen. Barack Obama’s bid for the White House, and union leaders have been out in force at the Democratic National Convention to push their message of improving workers’ rights at home and abroad.

This story first appeared in the August 29, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Bruce Raynor, general president of UNITE HERE, the main textile and apparel union that also represents hotel and restaurant employees, said here that he is pressing the campaign on four fundamental policy issues: fair trade deals, a bill that would make it easier for employees to unionize, a minimum wage increase and establishing a legal path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

“We were the first international union to endorse Sen. Obama,” Raynor said, noting the union’s endorsement of Obama when he ran for the Senate from Illinois, as well. “This is a political leader we have an extensive relationship with and we believe firmly he will be very attentive to our issues.”

Among the top issues on which the union hopes to have influence is a new approach to global trade. Labor groups are pressing for stronger labor and environmental provisions in trade deals — a pledge Obama has made on the hustings — as well as more aggressive action against imports from China, which critics say undervalues its currency by as much as 40 percent, putting U.S. companies and workers at a competitive disadvantage. Labor leaders also are pushing a new administration to penalize countries that subsidize their imports.

“The Democratic Party is not antitrade and Sen. Obama is not antitrade,” said Raynor. “We don’t want free trade if there is no fair trade and it only gives away American jobs.”

On a primary issue for the textile industry — the expiration of quotas on 34 types of Chinese apparel and textile imports — Raynor said he has spoken with the Obama campaign about the industry’s concerns and desire to monitor Chinese imports once the quotas are removed at the end of the year.

“I have personally had conversations with him about domestic manufacturing and the textile and apparel industry,” he said. “He understands and cares about their issues and he’ll be attentive to those issues as president.”

Another important topic for Raynor is passage in Congress of the Employee Free Choice Act. The Democratic Party’s platform and the candidate have said they would fight to pass the bill, which allows for workers to use a card-check system to vote on joining a union in place of a closed-ballot vote.

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