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AFL-CIO Chief to Back U.S. Airline Unions

By Peter Szekely

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said on Wednesday he was preparing to rally the labor movement behind unionized airline workers who face White House orders blocking them from striking at major U.S. air carriers.

In a wide-ranging interview with Reuters editors and reporters, Sweeney also complained that union leaders had been denied White House access, despite an assurance from President George W. Bush that they would be consulted on labor issues.

Sweeney vowed the labor movement would be more strident in supporting airline workers this year than it was in 1981 when then-President Ronald Reagan fired the country's air traffic controllers who were striking illegally.

``We're not going to see a repeat of the lack of the militancy that we saw during the Reagan years,'' he said.

``The workers are really up in arms and we're going to see that building up, and it's safe to say that we're not going to be standing on the sidelines,'' he said.

Sweeney declined to elaborate on plans for backing the airline workers, saying they were still being worked out in talks between the AFL-CIO and many of its 66 affiliated unions, which represent 13.2 million workers.

With the possibility of strikes by unionized workers at a number of major U.S. airlines this summer, the White House has said that Bush would use his authority to block any airline work stoppages for 60 days to give special panels a chance to recommend settlements.

Strike Averted

Bush averted a threatened walkout by 10,000 mechanics at Northwest Airlines Corp. by issuing an order that took effect on March 12 and prevented a strike for 60 days.

Union officials have complained that presidential interference in the collective bargaining process robs them of their leverage by depriving them of their strike weapon.

Other major airlines facing the possibility of work stoppages in the next few months include AMR Corp.'s American Airlines and Delta Air Lines .

The threat to intervene in the airline labor dispute was one of several actions by the new president that irked labor leaders, who campaigned vigorously for Democrat Al Gore for president and sought to make amends with Bush after he narrowly won the hotly contested election.

In a telephone call with Bush shortly after his victory, Sweeney said Bush assured him that labor's voice would be heard at the White House on matters of concern to union leaders, including the nomination of top officials.

But Sweeney said the White House never asked for union leaders' views before issuing four executive orders that were opposed by labor, or nominating Linda Chavez as labor secretary. Chavez later withdrew after news emerged that she had had an undocumented alien working in her home.

``There's no real dialogue going on,'' Sweeney said. ``There's no discussion of any of the issues that they've acted on so far, no consideration in terms of appointments.''

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Labor Secretary Elaine Chao had met with AFL-CIO Executive Council at its annual winter meeting last month.

``The administration is committed to an ongoing dialogue, as the secretary stated,'' he said.

Another White House official said representatives from the Airline Pilots Association met with Bush's chief economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey at the White House on Wednesday and that a delegation of aircraft mechanics held talks with Bush's National Economic Council in early February.

Keeping ``Bush Watch''

Sweeney said he had his first substantive meeting with Chao on Tuesday, the day Bush signed legislation that rolled back a Clinton administration workplace safety rule aimed at preventing injuries caused by repetitive motion.

Although he declined to characterize the labor movement as being at war with the Bush administration, he said the AFL-CIO has gotten less access to the White House than during the Reagan administration.

The steps Bush has taken against labor, which the AFL-CIO is listing in a special ``Bush Watch'' section on its Web site, had given unions a rallying cry to use to energize their members and to recruit unorganized workers, he said.

``We're going to keep that momentum going into the 2002 elections, with the focus being on organizing workers and moving members to get more involved in organizing activities in their parts of the country,'' he said.

AFL-CIO Political Director Steve Rosenthal said the unions would focus on 17 states that were decided by narrow margins in the November presidential election. Although only 13.5 percent of workers are union members, polls showed that 26 percent of voters last year came from union households.

Sweeney said unions were ready to work against the re-election next year of Bush's brother, Jeb Bush, as governor of Florida, the state that decided the presidential contest. The Florida governor was in contentious contract talks with unionized state workers, he said.

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