On election night two weeks ago, union people tried to smile as they surrounded Mayor Greg Nickels at the headquarters of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21 in south Seattle. They had been standing around him for years. In 2001, the local labor council's support is widely credited with pushing Nickels—a reliable vote for 14 years on the county council—past draconian City Attorney Mark Sidran in his bid for mayor, winning by about 3,000 votes. And Nickels didn't forget it. He paid them back handsomely with unfaltering allegiance in their struggles, from backing grocery workers in a showdown over better wages to the main contention of this year's election: the tunnel. (Unions don't want a tunnel so much as they'll take any second freeway through the city for freight traffic. And Nickels turned a citywide vote in 2007 against a waterfront tunnel and a viaduct rebuild into brokering an agreement with state powers to fund a different tunnel that the voters hadn't exactly shot down.) So unions stood by him, loyally. But on primary election night, as returns came in just after 8:00 p.m., Nickels was in third place, and union operatives forced smiles and carefully stood out of view of the television cameras before heading to their cars by 9:10 p.m. Nickels continued to lose by wider and wider gaps in each successive batch of results: The unions' man—the guy beloved by umbrella groups and nurses and Safeway checkers—was a goner.

"Unions are used to having a strong representative in the mayors office," says political consultant Cathy Allen. "Labor is still very strong and one of the determinants of who wins, if not the most determinant."

The two men who remain standing, Mike McGinn and Joe Mallahan, are not so embraced. "We have the same concerns that many in the labor community have," says Adam Glickman, a spokesman for Service Employees International Union, 775 NW (SEIU). McGinn and Mallahan, he says, have "no experience or record."

Rumors surfaced six days after the election that state senator Ed Murray (D-43) was mulling a write-in campaign for mayor; voters started getting calls from polling firms asking if they would vote for him. Who was paying for those calls? All roads seemed to lead to the SEIU, but Glickman refuses to confirm—or deny—whether the SEIU funded it. "We are not recruiting someone but are also not satisfied by the choices and excited by someone of Ed's stature getting in," he says. Some have rumored that the SEIU pledged a sizable contribution to a potential Murray campaign, which seems possible. SEIU chapters have donated over $150,000 to local campaigns so far this year, Washington Public Disclosure Commission records show. But Glickman says, "I'm not going to speculate how much we money we would give."

McGinn's vow to stop a tunnel proposal—his battle cry in the primary election—could make unions dismiss him entirely. "He has made a religion of attacking this compromise that was put together on the viaduct replacement," says David Frieboth, executive secretary of the M.L. King County Labor Council, the AFL-CIO umbrella group of over 175 local unions. Eliminating the tunnel and the viaduct, he says, "could have a devastating impact on industrial capability of unions. The maritime industrial unions are very, very, very concerned about not only his position on the subject but also his unwillingness to work the issue."

Mallahan worked for T-Mobile, a company that was revealed to use strategies to prevent unions from forming—practically a mark of the beast. The unknown, says Frieboth, "is the degree to which his corporate culture really rubs off on him." The Seattle police and firefighter unions, after holding out on endorsing even Nickels in the primary, have announced that they will official give their support to Mallahan. But most unions that loved Nickels—those representing thousands of employees—are still undecided.

The value of a fairly unified labor endorsement cannot be overstated in Seattle politics. More than their organization's name on a mailer and money, support from the labor council brings fleets of door-knocking union workers and phone banks staffed by volunteer union reps speaking to their candidate's virtues. "It was our labor-neighbor campaign" that put Nickels over Sidran in 2001, Frieboth explains, "targeting our membership to get out the vote."

Lacking for a leader, unions see in Ed Murray the hope they saw in Nickels eight years ago. In his 14 years in the legislature (in addition to being a leading lion for gay-rights causes), he has a 96 percent voting record on union issues. "He's got a record, not only how he has cast votes, but how he works with people," Frieboth says. "So he is the known quantity."

More than ever, labor has an intense motivation to influence this election—and the money and muscle to do it. Their members face onerous furloughs (members of 14 city employee unions voted on Friday to take a 10-day furlough to reduce layoffs, and County Council Member Kathy Lambert introduced a bill last week that could reduce raises and limit union negotiations). In addition to keeping their advocates in local government, unions need to demonstrate that they can make or break a candidate, one of the few bargaining chips they've got left.

"These guys are no dummies. They know that the way to keep unions strong is to keep in [office] people who have been there the longest, bottom line," Allen says. "Labor has never faced such a great time when they need to deliver for their long time members," she says. "It is very much the case that they may be able to make a mayor if they get Ed Murray in the race."

"If the SEIU goes into the legislative session and says, 'If you start messing around with cuts we don't like, beware the ballot box then you will be gone,'" says Allen. And she posits that the SEIU is simply beefing up its muscle in city and council races to prepare for defending their state contracts. "This year becomes the proof positive for that assertion next year [in the legislature]," Allen says.

As far-fetched as it sounds, this could be a good year for Murray to run as a write in candidate. All-mail elections, which King County switched to this year, prove better for write-in candidates than ballot-booth voting because people sit down with their ballot, which includes instructions about how to write in a candidate, along with mail pieces and plenty of time.

Murray says he will make up his mind this week. But that may depend on the extent that unions can support him. And that's unknown, even to unions. Whereas unions worked in unity eight years ago, national labor politics have splintered them slightly, Frieboth explains. "For example instead of having a labor council that is the primary convener of the effort, you may have more subgroups that are working amongst themselves." (For example, the police and fire unions are supporting Mallahan.) Glickman confirms that the SEIU would need a broad coalition to get Murray in office. But across the board, union leaders and politicos agree that Murray brings that sort of excitement they need to rally around. "I think that if he were on the ballot, he would be in a strong position to be the endorsed candidate by labor," Frieboth says.