updated 3/9/2004 4:12:50 PM ET 2004-03-09T21:12:50

The president of the AFL-CIO criticized President Bush on Tuesday, saying the incumbent Republican “has been AWOL” while U.S. jobs have gone overseas and millions of Americans have struggled without health insurance.

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Marking the start of organized labor’s winter executive council meeting, John Sweeney assailed the president as union leaders revved up for November’s election in what many view as the fight of labor’s life.

Since Iowa’s caucuses in January, when the labor-blessed candidates Dick Gephardt and Howard Dean finished far behind the leaders, organized labor has been dogged by questions about its relevance in politics.

Union leaders are determined to prove their clout and viability this election year. Union chiefs are planning labor’s largest multimillion-dollar effort to mobilize working Americans they say have been left behind in a Bush economy, in support of Democrat John Kerry.

“This is an election of a lifetime from my perspective,” said Terry O’Sullivan, president of the Laborers Union International of North America. “We can’t live four more years under Bush.”

Sweeney labeled Bush “the worst president for working people in recent memory.”

The AFL-CIO president’s use of the term AWOL is an echo of the recent round of Democratic and Republican squabbling over whether Bush fulfilled his service in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War.

Flap over service record
Democrats argue that Bush was absent for weeks; the White House says he completed his service.

With union membership at an all-time low, jobs flooding overseas and U.S. hiring at a near standstill, the AFL-CIO was holding its winter executive council meeting, beginning Tuesday, at this luxury resort just steps away from sand and sea.

Bal Harbour was for years the regular meeting spot for union leaders. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney ended that tradition in 1996, cutting back on conventions to save costs, and holding meetings in working-class cities more accessible to the workers the leaders represent.

The decision to return to Bal Harbor, where room rates for the meeting start at $225 a night, was made a few years ago to avoid losing deposit money, Sweeney said. He noted the political importance of the state and its 27 electoral votes, which won President Bush the White House in 2000.

“We are going to be very much involved in the political campaign here,” Sweeney said. “We have a stronger and stronger labor movement here. So for all those reasons, I’m happy to be in Florida.”

Union leaders say labor is united like never before to defeat Bush, who is expected to raise $170 million for his re-election bid against Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee.

Labor leaders will vote on a budget this week to fund the AFL-CIO’s political mobilization efforts. The federation has about $35 million budgeted, which is less than the $42 million spent in 2000.

New surcharge sought
Some officials are pushing for a new surcharge on affiliate unions to help boost the budget by $10 million or more. A vote is set for Wednesday.

Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters and a top adviser to Kerry’s campaign, said one resource being considered is the financial investment houses, insurance companies and other business entities that labor does business with and could be tapped for contributions to Kerry.

The campaign has set a goal of raising $80 million in the next three months, separate from labor’s efforts, he said Schaitberger.

Still, wounds exist from a primary season that pitted union against union in the early going. On top of the infighting among leaders, the two candidates with the most labor support — Gephardt and Dean — failed miserably, raising questions about unions’ power at the ballot box.

A move is under way this week by some union leaders to undercut the authority of the AFL-CIO’s political chairman, Gerald McEntee, president of the 1.5 million American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. McEntee has been criticized by some of his colleagues for withdrawing his union’s endorsement of Dean before the Vermont governor bowed out of the race. McEntee declined an interview request Monday.

Leaders are considering creating a subcommittee of the political committee that would have decision-making authority to satisfy McEntee’s detractors and keep the union chief in his post. Few deny McEntee’s zeal for politics. He was an early supporter of Bill Clinton in the 1992 race, and the union’s money machine helped propel Clinton to the White House.

Sweeney denied the move was related to concerns about McEntee. “Gerald McEntee will continue to be chairman of the political committee — I hope,” Sweeney said. “He has done an outstanding job.”

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