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Big Labor Chief: Anybody But Bush

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney isn't saying which Democrat he thinks would be the toughest challenger to President Bush next year.

"I just want to make sure that we have the strongest candidate who can win and I think this process that we're going through is going to give us that candidate," he said. "We will then do our damnedest to get that candidate elected."

In an interview with The Associated Press on Monday, Sweeney had harsh words for the Bush administration, saying it was "anti-worker, anti-union and anti-progress."

For government workers alone, the administration "is just a horror in terms of how they deprive these workers of their rights," he said.

Sweeney said organized labor is going through the same decision-making process as other Americans in selecting a candidate.

The two largest unions in the AFL-CIO bypassed longtime labor ally Dick Gephardt last week and are formally endorsing Howard Dean on Wednesday.

Still, Sweeney said, Gephardt is "tough enough to really continue to fight as hard as he can for the nomination."

"Dick Gephardt has a significant amount of support, but nobody has two-thirds" of the federation's membership, he said, referring to the threshold a candidate must pass to get its endorsement.

Gephardt has 21 endorsements from unions with more than 5 million members.

"I've got huge unions for me, I've got little unions and big unions," Gephardt said Monday on CBS' The Early Show.

"It's not just the leadership," he said. "It's that rank-and-file worker that's excited about my campaign."

But the defections of the 1.6 million Service Employees International Union and the 1.5 million American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees have put a dent in Gephardt's labor credentials and helped transform his rival Dean from surprise insurgent to solid front-runner.

Unions are struggling from the past recession, and many are facing steep membership declines. That leaves labor officials trying to figure out how to finance their largest political effort ever.

The federation has about $35 million budgeted in the election cycle, Sweeney said. That's less than the $42 million spent in 2000.

Some union leaders are pushing for a $45 million budget that would help fund several of the union-run political nonprofit groups that have been created to turn out Democratic voters.

The extra $10 million or so would come from the federation's organizing department and other budget transfers, officials have said. Leaders also are considering another surcharge on its affiliates. That decision probably would be made in the spring, Sweeney said.

"Our strength is not really our financial resources," he said. "Our strength is our membership and the people power."

Bush's campaign has already pulled in more than $94 million, even though he has no competitor in the Republican primaries, and he is expected to raise as much as $200 million.

Money isn't labor's only worry. Unions must come together after what is shaping up to be an intensely divisive primary contest. Sweeney says that is not a concern.

"We're happy with what's going on, and we expect that when the final decisions are made that the labor movement will be united behind one candidate."

Sweeney himself is likely to face a challenger when he seeks re-election in 2005, another sign of cracks in the labor foundation.

A handful of unions unhappy with the federation under Sweeney's leadership, particularly on organizing new members, have banded together informally to push for changes with an eye on 2005. In response, Sweeney, 69, announced in September he planned to seek re-election.

The AFL-CIO represents 64 national unions with a combined membership of about 13 million.

By Leigh Strope