LANSING, Mich. (AP) — The Michigan AFL-CIO on Friday endorsed Democratic gubernatorial candidate Virg Bernero, igniting a battle for union endorsements in the race.
The state AFL-CIO represents over 600,000 active and retired members in 59 unions throughout Michigan, including the United Auto Workers, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the American Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
"This is a lot of people. It means boots on the ground, volunteers, positive word of mouth. Votes, ultimately," Bernero told The Associated Press. "It adds greatly to our momentum."
Michigan AFL-CIO President Mark Gaffney said in a conference call that Bernero got the nod because he's more in line with traditional Democratic values than Dillon. Dillon has angered some unions by suggesting that all public workers should be covered by one health care plan and pay a larger share of their costs.
"You don't fix Michigan's middle class by cutting their earnings and benefits," Gaffney said. "That's an easy, short-term, wrong fix. We needed a candidate who understood that."
The union confederation made its endorsement a day after the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council, which represents nearly 100,000 workers statewide, endorsed Democratic House Speaker Andy Dillon, Bernero's main rival in the race.
In backing Dillon, the trades council praised him for having "the right plan for a better economy and the ability to make it happen." They have been especially pleased by his support for building new coal-fired power plants, which they say will create jobs.
Dillon said his endorsement showed that "the Trades Council and I share the same goals of getting our economy moving again and helping workers earn a good paycheck."
Bernero, currently serving his second term as Lansing mayor, said his endorsement sent a clear signal that he was "the candidate for working people."
Unions aren't as big a force in Michigan elections as they have been in the past, in part because their membership and ability to donate money has declined.
Nevertheless, the AFL-CIO endorsement will give the little-known Bernero a huge statewide network through which he can increase his name recognition, raise money and collect the 15,000 signatures he needs to get on the ballot, said Democratic consultant Chris De Witt.
"It just adds an instant level to credibility for him," said De Witt, who was the spokesman for Lt. Gov. John Cherry until Cherry unexpectedly dropped out of the Democratic gubernatorial race. The AFL-CIO has "always had a very strong member-to-member program. ... Those endorsements do deliver votes."
Lansing political analyst Craig Ruff called the endorsement "a full-throated effort by organized labor to make sure Andy Dillon doesn't get the nomination."
"It's more about who they don't want," he added.
The AFL-CIO endorsement was based on a vote of the group's 36-member executive council, which includes representatives of the group's Central Labor Councils and its 24 largest unions, including the Building Trades.
Gaffney said the vote for Bernero was "overwhelming" but not unanimous after the council interviewed the mayor, Dillon and state Rep. Alma Wheeler Smith — the three Democrats in the race.
Bernero is the son of a former General Motors Co. worker and was a staunch advocate for autoworkers during the 2008 national debate over whether GM and Chrysler should get federal loans to keep them afloat.
Some major unions in the state remain on the sidelines, including the Michigan Education Association and the Teamsters. The MEA, the state's largest teachers union, has said Dillon's health care plan takes away collective bargaining rights, making a Bernero endorsement likely.
The Teamsters might back Republican U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, who has supported ending the federal government's 20-year supervision of the union. The Teamsters have endorsed Hoekstra for Congress in the past.
Competing against Hoekstra for the GOP nomination are former Gateway CEO Rick Snyder, Attorney General Mike Cox, Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard and state Sen. Tom George.