Nevada's Unions Fracture over Candidates and Caucus Rules

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Labor unions have fractured among the three top Democratic presidential contenders, diluting labor's overall influence here and adding extra wallop to the bruising nomination fight.

Unions in Nevada have poured money and occasional vitriol into a battle between three pro-union candidates. One union has even joined a lawsuit against the state Democratic Party.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. In moving Nevada's caucus to the front of the primary calendar, national Democratic leaders were offering unions an opportunity to influence the nomination. In exchange, the thriving labor movement here would get a head start mobilizing its rank and file for the November general election in this swing state.

But the 21st-century face of US organized labor - particularly the service industries that have flourished in high-growth areas like Vegas - is showing itself to be more independent and risk- taking with its political deals, say experts.

Case in point: the decision by local chapters of the Culinary Workers Union and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to endorse Sen. Barack Obama after his second-place finish in New Hampshire.

"This is totally unlike the old labor political activity," says Richard Hurd, professor of industrial and labor relations at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. "These unions have broken away from the AFL-CIO and they are trying to forge a new path. Their decision to endorse Obama, who never had any major union endorsements until they came along - that's the kind of thing they want to do: something path-breaking."

Traditionally, labor unions' approach is to nurture relationships with longtime, mainstream politicians, says Dr. Hurd. The SEIU and the Culinary Workers Union, by contrast, are "far more aggressive," he says.

"In reaching their decision, they undoubtedly took into account what sort of access they might gain if they make an endorsement that pans out," says Hurd. "If they are the first big unions to make an endorsement, then they are right there."

The approach has turned labor's voice in Nevada into a cacophony. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has eight unions in her corner, former Sen. John Edwards has four, and Senator Obama three.

But Obama's few endorsements bring with them the most workers. The culinary union's 60,000 members top the combined local membership of Senator Clinton's or Mr. …