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When the president of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, Bruce Raynor, endorsed North Carolina Senator John Edwards for president at a February 7 rally in Milwaukee, it was only the latest maverick move by the union leader.

Many unions were flocking to the camp of the Democratic front-runner, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, but Raynor and his union decided to back the long-shot bid by Edwards, who has proven himself to be Unite’s loyal friend.

The North Carolina senator has maintained close ties to Unite since his 1998 Senate bid, when Unite was the first union to endorse him and lent dozens of workers to his campaign. During that campaign, Edwards visited every Unite worksite in the state, and subsequently worked hard to advance Unite’s effort to save 5,000 jobs at Pillowtex Corp., a local textile manufacturer. Edwards also offered a populist critique of American economic inequality that Unite found compelling.

“Edwards’s ‘Two Americas’ speech is basically our message and the story of our members’ lives,” said Unite political director Christopher Chafe.

He conceded it was a “risk” to back Edwards when Kerry has emerged as the front-runner, but described it as “a risk our members and elected leadership felt was worth taking” —and one that was looking better after Edwards surged to a surprisingly strong second-place finish in Wisconsin Tuesday.

“We want Edwards to be the nominee, but at the end of the day, we want his message to be the message of the party,” Chafe said, asserting that “his critique is key to winning.”

Chafe might have added that Unite and his boss are known for taking risks.

Raynor is an architect of the New Unity Partnership, a working arrangement launched last year by five major unions — Unite, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA), the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE) and the Carpenters International Union — that aims to increase labor’s strength through joint action and organizing drives. The partnership so far has flexed its muscle mostly by backing with money and troops the successful struggle last summer to unionize parts of the staff at Yale University.

But in its short life, it has generated some controversy.

For one, the partnership seeks to turn around the labor movement’s shrinking share of the American workforce by abandoning the current model of organizing favored by labor’s central body, the AFL-CIO, organizing by trade, and embracing an older one, organizing by industry. Unite, which was formed in 1995 from the merger of two historically Jewish garment workers’ unions, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, is charged with organize the retail sector in the partnership’s scheme.

The idea of organizing by industry has a long history. The original division in the 1930s between the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations was based on just this issue — with the AFL organizing trades and crafts such as carpenters and sheet-metal workers, and the CIO organizing entire industries, such as autos, steel and chemicals.

But organizing by industry could cause the New Unity Partnership to poach on other unions’ turf. Some union officials told the Forward privately that, because of the poaching issue, the partnership’s plans verge on a declaration of war.

Raynor denied that any poaching would occur.

“Unite has always represented workers in the retail sector,” Raynor, an intense man with a receding hairline and a brusque manner, told the Forward during a recent interview at Unite’s New York offices. “We’ve represented clothing stores for generations. We represented the early discount stores. We’re the union that had contracts with Kmart, when no other unions had contracts with Kmart. We didn’t get together and carve up the jurisdictions of the labor movement …We don’t organize healthcare workers. We’ve been very disciplined in carving out sectors where we don’t fight with other unions.”

Another controversial change that the partnership seeks to make is to loosen the close relationship of the labor movement with the Democratic Party, Raynor said.

The AFL-CIO has been a reliable ally of the Democrats, contributing tens of millions of dollars and thousands of troops to Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts. With the exception of the Carpenters’ leader Douglas McCarron, the union presidents in the partnership — Raynor, SEIU’s Andrew Stern, LIUNA’s Terence O’Sullivan and Here’s John Wilhelm — serve on the AFL-CIO’s executive council, so the partnership’s plans could have ramifications for the direction of the larger AFL-CIO.

“We think the Democrats have not been loyal allies as a party,” Raynor said, who said he was speaking on behalf of the entire partnership. “We think that it’s healthy to have a dialogue with all sides. We will not be captives of any political party. Where we see opportunities to endorse what we consider progressive Republicans, we will take advantage of those opportunities, like we did with [New York Governor George] Pataki. We’ll do it on an ad hoc basis. But you’ve not seen Unite endorse lots of Republicans. One of our biggest priorities is defeating George Bush.”

Calls to the AFL-CIO asking for comment on the partnership’s political plans went unreturned.

“Loyal allies” or not, on the Thursday night before the Wisconsin primary, Unite’s sleek Seventh Avenue headquarters in Manhattan’s garment district certainly qualified as Democratic turf. Edwards’s campaign has set up camp in the building, and six Edwards volunteers showed up at 6 p.m. to make calls to Wisconsin voters using Unite’s phone lines. Edwards operative Jonathan Voss, wearing a couple of days’ stubble and rumpled clothes, handed out voter lists to the volunteers. Voss said that similar phone banks had been set up in the state four times previously, including the day of the Tennessee primary, when 100 people made 3,000 calls. He said he hoped to mobilize the 6,000 Edwards activists the campaign has identified in New York to get out the vote for the senator in the March 2 New York primary.

Quickly punching in phone numbers, Mark Finkel of West Hempstead, N.Y., an Edwards delegate from the state’s 4th congressional district, pitched Badger State voters in a thick Long Island accent. A longtime liberal activist, Finkel said he nonetheless had chosen Edwards because of his staunchly pro-Israel positions.

“I live in West Hempstead. I need someone who’s not going to say ‘Carter, Clinton and Baker,’” he said, referring to Kerry’s comment in a speech that he might name one those former presidents or the former secretary of state as a Middle East envoy. That one Kerry remark, Finkel said, gained him 100 signatures on his Edwards delegate petition.

For Raynor, leading the charge for Edwards and for the New Unity Partnership are both of a piece.

“The labor movement needs to change. We are not doing well. Hello, American workers are getting murdered out there,” Raynor said. “They look to their union leaders to do something about it…. We want to lead by example.”

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