As Massachusetts Senator John Kerry continued to rack up early primary victories, exit polls consistently showed that the elusive characteristic of “electability” was weighing heavily on the minds of Democratic voters. The same can be said of labor unions, it seems.

On February 9, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) announced that it was withdrawing its support for the flagging candidacy of former Vermont Governor Howard Dean. The group, along with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), endorsed Dean in November.

“We can’t be wasting time supporting a candidate who will not be the nominee,” explained one AFSCME organizer who worked for Dean in Iowa. “We need to focus on taking back the White House.”

After failing to win any of the first 11 presidential contests, Dean met February 7 with SEIU President Andrew Stern and AFSCME President Gerald McEntee to discuss the campaign’s direction. James Williams, president of the International Union of Painters and Associated Trades (IUPAT)—another union that offered early support—participated by telephone.

According to an internal AFSCME e-mail, McEntee expressed concerns about the effect a continued Dean campaign would have on the eventual nominee and suggested that he quit the race. Dean wasn’t willing to do that, so AFSCME took the unusual step of rescinding its endorsement by announcing that the organization would no longer work on the candidate’s behalf.

In a joint statement released by Dean and McEntee, McEntee put a positive spin on Dean’s accomplishments, saying that he “has broken new ground in conducting presidential campaigns.” And Dean, in turn, praised AFSCME, saying the union and its members “are a tireless and effective part of the political process and will continue to play a leading role in this election.”

After the meeting, SEIU released a statement reaffirming its commitment to Dean, and IUPAT voted later that week in favor of a resolution offered by the AFL-CIO’s Buildings and Construction Trades Department in support of Kerry. (The resolution was not an endorsement because two-thirds of the AFL-CIO is needed to back candidates officially.)

Many observers saw the AFSCME decision as a clear political calculation, noting that McEntee has long tried to gain maximum leverage by making early picks, a successful tactic in 1992, when he gave underdog Bill Clinton an early nod.

But Kerry was said to be McEntee’s early favorite until the Massachusetts senator’s campaign began to fade in the fall and the president shifted his union’s support to the rising Dean.

“One of the things about McEntee, he likes to make endorsements early,” says labor historian Michael Kazin. “But he also likes to make good bets; obviously he made a bad bet here. … He sees that, barring some catastrophe or scandal, Kerry’s going to get the nomination, and they want to be in there when that happens.”

When the SEIU and AFSCME jointly endorsed Dean in November, many insiders thought it would secure victory. Dean already had built a powerful, tech-savvy following of “latte-drinking” software programmers, anti-war college students, highly educated white liberals and thousands of people who previously had been politically unengaged. But missing was the core Democratic constituency of blue-collar wage earners and people of color—the constituency SEIU, with its 1.6 million members, and AFSCME, with its 1.4 million, represented.

Dean’s endorsements from the nation’s two largest service unions, it was thought, would give him ammunition in his battle against Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt, whose longtime connection with labor had resulted in a bevy of endorsements from industrial unions.

The strategy didn’t pan out. In fact, poor showings by both of the major labor-backed candidates starting in Iowa—where Gephardt was forced to drop out after a dismal fourth-place finish and Dean was gravely wounded by taking third—has some questioning whether the movement still has the needed clout to turn candidates into frontrunners.

Iowa, with its complicated caucuses, was supposed to be the kind of place where the organizational strength of unions would provide an extra advantage.

But the AFSCME organizer who worked in Iowa notes that the union exceeded its goals for member participation in the caucuses there, and says both candidates’ disappointing finishes were largely their own doing. “It really isn’t our fault in any way,” he says. “The structure of the Dean campaign had been flawed, the image of the angry candidate, the attack ads that he and Gephardt ran against each other, they all hurt and you saw them both start dropping in the polls.”

Lane Windham, a spokeswoman for the AFL-CIO, says too much is being read into Dean and Gephardt’s primary performance. “I think you can’t really judge labor’s ability to turn out people based on Iowa,” she says. “A better way to look at the impact working families have had is to look at the [last two presidential] elections.” In those elections, she notes, voters from union households made up nearly a quarter of the electorate, “which is a far greater share than they make up of the general population.”

Primaries are always a time when feuds are played out, loyalty is tested and political expediency is of the utmost importance. But what those in the labor movement all seem to agree on is that everyone will be quickly united in the coming months as a nominee emerges and the quest to defeat Bush officially gets under way.

“It’s fascinating the role that labor could potentially play this year,” says Kazin. “The states that look like they are going to be the swing states, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, are states with pretty high union density.”

With manufacturing jobs hemorrhaging, wages stagnating, and cash-strapped states and municipalities offering stingier contracts for their employees, union rank and file are the voters most likely to be feeling the pinch from the Bush economy.

“They have seen him come out against workers at every turn,” says Windham, “ergonomics, overtime, he’s just tried to strip collective bargaining rights from workers at the Department of Defense. I feel confident that we’ll come out of it with a candidate who will defeat Bush and stand up for working people’s issues.”