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New York Daily News
October 23, 2003

They're calling it Bush Bucks

More than 3,000 leaders and members of New York's powerful health care workers union, 1199/SEIU, held an unusual meeting in Baltimore this past weekend to lay plans for an unprecedented $35 million campaign to drive George W. Bush out of the White House next year.

The three-day, closed-door gathering was so hush-hush that even though former President Bill Clinton was the headline speaker and Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean attended, the conference received no media attention.

Neither 1199 nor its parent union, the Service Employees International Union, has yet endorsed a Democratic candidate. But after this weekend's conference, it's pretty evident how 1199 members are leaning.

"They mobbed Dean and cheered him wildly from the moment he walked into the back of the hall," said a union shop steward in attendance.

As part of the anti-Bush campaign, union President Dennis Rivera has recruited 1,000 rank-and-file members and staff to fan out across the country beginning next month to get an early start organizing get-out-the-vote operations in more than a dozen "battleground" states.

Those states, including Florida, Michigan, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Ohio, are considered key for Democrats to regain the White House. Each of Rivera's 1,000 volunteers will take a one-year leave of absence from his or her regular job - something permitted by many 1199 labor contracts - with the union paying regular salary and travel costs.

"No one in the labor movement has ever tried anything as ambitious as Dennis and 1199 are planning," a top AFL- CIO official said yesterday.

Rivera's union, with nearly 240,000 members in New York State, has been a political powerhouse for years. It boasts an enormous war chest and its members are experienced campaigners. Nearly half of them contribute to the union's political fund through a special monthly voluntary dues checkoff.

Because New York is considered a sure state for the Democrats in next year's election, Rivera has devised a novel plan to dispatch 1199 members out-of-state to bolster Democratic efforts around the country.

It is an expensive scheme. The final tab will be between $35 and $40 million, according to several 1199 sources.

"We'll need to launch a special one-time voluntary appeal among our members to pay for it," one union official said.

While he is usually accessible to reporters, Rivera refused this week to talk about the campaign or about last weekend's conference.

Part of the reason for his secrecy, according to several sources inside the union, is that the leadership of SEIU, 1199's parent union, will not meet until Nov. 6 to vote on endorsing a Democratic candidate.

Rivera has made it clear he backs Dean, but the leaders of several other SEIU locals around the country prefer to withhold any endorsements for now.

A similar problem faces the national leadership of the 13 million-member AFL-CIO.

A few big national unions like the Teamsters, the Steelworkers and the International Association of Machinists already have backed Dick Gephardt.

But AFL rules require support by unions representing two-thirds of its membership before the federation can endorse a presidential candidate.

Gephardt, thought to be the early favorite among labor unions, seems unlikely at this point to reach that magic mark.

No matter who winds up as the Democratic nominee, labor leaders are laying plans for their biggest election effort ever to unseat Bush.

"There is unity like never before on a singleminded goal - winning the White House," said Karen Ackerman, AFL-CIO political director. "Another four years of this administration will decimate the labor movement."

Which is why Rivera and his 1199 troops are set to march into America's heartland next month, raising all the Bush Bucks they can.