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

UNITE HERE announced its endorsement in the midst of one of the most unpredictable and wide-open presidential races in recent times, one that could propel the first African-American or woman into the White House.

The union’s endorsement came a day after Obama narrowly lost the New Hampshire primary to his main opponent, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D., N.Y.), and six days after the Illinois senator scored a decisive victory over Clinton in the Iowa caucus.

“Our view is that Obama represents a fresh voice,” Bruce Raynor, general president of the union, said in a phone 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 American workers resounded with UNITE HERE’s members and executives, Raynor said.

UNITE HERE has 460,000 active members and 400,000 retirees. The union, which traces its roots back to the ILGWU, 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 has dwindled in the last 20 years, the union still represents 110,000 apparel and textile manufacturing, retail and distribution center workers, with the balance employed in industries such as industrial laundry, casinos, food service, airport concessions and restaurants.

This includes the 60,000-member Culinary Workers Union, which has a big presence in Las Vegas and could be influential in the Jan. 19 Nevada caucus.

“He understands first-hand 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.”

Perhaps the most defining and defeating moment in trade for organized labor groups came with former President Bill Clinton’s support and signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement between the U.S., Mexico and Canada, which was enacted in 1994. Obama has said that 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.


For more, see Thursday’s issue of WWD.

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