- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 26, 2003

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. Labor leaders' discussions this week are focusing on 2004 earlier than ever before.
At its winter meeting, the AFL-CIO labor federation's executive council yesterday announced a new political action effort to win support from workers year-round instead of only before elections. Union representatives would be updated regularly on labor issues, then instructed to spread the word to their members and solicit their support.
The AFL-CIO also plans a more aggressive voter-registration campaign.
"We want to do it earlier with more," federation President John Sweeney said. "It gives us time to train people who will be actively involved in campaigns, and have trained people in place during the primary process."
The extra lead time, about six months, also will be used to hold politicians accountable, he said.
"Right now, the administration and the Congress are not paying attention to issues important to working families," Mr. Sweeney said.
In the 2000 election, union households cast 26 percent of all votes, despite the fact they made up 13 percent of the population. Political analysts say union efforts to organize votes for Al Gore were a crucial factor in producing the closest presidential election in American history.
"This nation is being led backwards by President Bush and the Republicans in Congress," Mr. Sweeney said. "It is the top priority of the labor political program in 2003 and 2004 to take the country forward again by removing our out-of-touch leaders."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan responded: "I think the last thing on the minds of Americans is an election that is two years away. His time would be better spent on urging Congress this year to support the president's plan for encouraging job creation and economic growth."
Mr. Bush is pushing a $690 billion tax-cut plan to stimulate the economy and create jobs. The unemployment rate has been climbing for the last two years and is currently at 5.7 percent.
Part of the increased unemployment is a result of the economic decline caused by the September 11 terrorists attacks. But labor leaders blame the loss of manufacturing jobs to Mexico, China and other low-wage countries as a significant factor.
Growing discontent with Mr. Bush is greatest in the industrial Midwest, which depends heavily on manufacturing and construction jobs, presidential candidate Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri said.
"That's where George Bush will be beaten," he said.
Union leaders said their membership dropped to 16.2 million last year from 16.4 million a year earlier, largely from losses of blue-collar jobs.
Democratic presidential hopefuls and party leaders are courting the 54 members of the AFL-CIO council.
Top Democratic presidential hopefuls are seeking endorsements from organized labor this week at the winter meeting. Among them is Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun.
Mr. Gephardt pushed an economic-stimulus plan before the labor group that would grant tax incentives to employers who provide health insurance to their workers. He also said he would push the World Trade Organization for a worldwide minimum wage.
Democrats yesterday accused the Bush administration of favoring the wealthy, thereby creating a bigger gap between rich and poor.
"This administration is hampering economic opportunity in our country with the policies they are putting forward," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.
Among the policies Democrats criticized were the administration's refusal to let Homeland Security Department workers organize unions; Republican efforts to weaken the Railway Labor Act rights of transportation workers to strike; and a proposal to abolish mandatory overtime pay.
"It's a direct attack on the middle class," said Rep. George Miller, California Democrat.
For endorsements, Mr. Sweeney said he wants unions "to stay unified and not to make any early decisions until they have as good an idea as possible as to where their members stand."
That didn't stop Democrats from trying.
"I think they're looking for somebody who sees things through their eyes and will fight for working families," Mr. Edwards said. "I think they're looking for somebody who's really willing to take this fight to George Bush."
Mrs. Moseley-Braun said she has "the vision to lead the country out of the doldrums that we are currently in."
Mr. Lieberman said: "The prevailing mood here is that the Bush administration has been not only a disaster in general for our economy, but has particularly made life much harder for working people, middle-class Americans."
Mr. Gephardt, who is spending four days here, said his visit with union officials "is going well, real well."
Andy Stern, president of the AFL-CIO's largest union, the Service Employees International Union with 1.5 million members, said the Democrat who takes on Mr. Bush in 2004 has to "pass the hang test, which is, you've got to go out and be able to be with workers."
In 2000, Mr. Gore "never really passed that test. Bush did," he said. "He puts on those boots and his belt buckles and swaggers around the ranch and tries to convince us he's just a regular, old guy."
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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