U.S. service employees union, with 2 million members, endorses Clinton

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks to her supporters after the 2016 U.S. Democratic presidential candidates debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, United States, November 14, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Young

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton on Tuesday won the endorsement of the two-million-member SEIU labor union as she seeks her party's nomination for the November 2016 election.

The endorsement of the Service Employees International Union gives momentum to Clinton's bid to woo labor, a key Democratic constituency, and avert a damaging primary fight.

Leaders from the union "collectively agreed that the best choice for our union was to endorse Clinton," said SEIU International President Mary Kay Henry.

Union leadership evaluated the candidates on their positions as well as "who can win in a general election," Henry said, adding that "she's (Clinton) willing to use executive authority to change the lives of working people who are working their hearts out in poverty jobs."

The SEIU has been a major force in the "Fight for $15" movement, which pushes for higher wages for workers, including fast-food employees.

While Clinton has indicated support for the group's efforts, she has declined to throw her weight behind a $15 federal minimum wage.

"I support a $12 national federal minimum wage," Clinton said at a Democratic debate on Saturday. "But I do believe that is a minimum. And places like Seattle, like Los Angeles, like New York City, they can go higher," she added.

SEIU Local 503 in Oregon, however, recently passed a resolution asking the union not to endorse until after the primaries.

"I saw that some divisiveness could occur within the ranks with an endorsement one way or another," said Betty Holladay, a 503 board member who proposed the resolution.

"This was a middle-of-the-road approach, even though I'm a strong Bernie (Sanders) supporter," she said.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Clinton's chief Democratic rival, has said the federal minimum wage should be raised to $15 an hour.

Clinton has won the endorsement of other major unions, including public service employee group AFSCME and the National Education Association.

"As president, I will be proud to stand with SEIU and fight alongside them - to defend workers' right to organize and unions' right to bargain collectively, to raise incomes for working people and the middle class, and to ensure that hardworking Americans can retire with dignity and security," Clinton said in a statement after the endorsement.

The former secretary of state remains the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, with 56 percent support to 31 percent for Sanders in a five-day rolling poll by Reuters/IPSOS dated Nov. 13.

Sanders has won endorsements from National Nurses United and the American Postal Workers Union.

(Reporting by Luciana Lopez; editing by Lisa Lambert, Andrew Hay and G Crosse)