AFL-CIO Dissidents Claim Imminent Victory : Labor: Unions behind Sweeney say their candidate has the votes to defeat incumbent President Donahue.


Unions backing John J. Sweeney, the dissident labor leader fighting a historic battle for the presidency of the AFL-CIO, claimed Monday that their candidate had locked up his election victory.

Sweeney, the 61-year-old president of the Service Employees International Union, is challenging incumbent AFL-CIO President Thomas R. Donahue in the first openly contested leadership battle in the 40-year history of the modern American labor federation.

The claim of imminent victory came in a letter to Donahue signed by Sweeney and 26 other union presidents representing 55% of the roll call votes at the federation convention, which began Monday.

The union leaders said they wanted to end "media speculation and confusion" about where their loyalties lie.

Referring to the ticket led by Sweeney, the letter said, "We are solidly committed to the New Voice slate and change in the labor movement. If it is your desire to force an election in spite of the more than 50% of the per capita vote we represent, we will honor your wishes out of respect for your long years of service to the labor movement. But we do not want our reputations further sullied by the spreading of unfounded rumors about where we stand."

But Donahue, an acknowledged underdog who has scrambled in recent days to try to pry away a few unions from the Sweeney camp, refused to concede defeat. In a brief interview, the 67-year-old Donahue said tersely that "we're still talking" to some of the unions that urged him to step aside.

Donahue succeeded in drawing the International Brotherhood of Carpenters into his camp Friday, cutting Sweeney's expected share of the vote from 58% to 55%, but he has been unable to win over further support.

The presidential election, which figures to be the high point of the four-day convention, is Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Sweeney forces began flexing their muscles on the jammed floor of the convention in mid-town Manhattan. Amid thunderous cheers, they succeeded in postponing a hotly contested vote on whether to create a third senior officer, behind the president and secretary-treasurer positions, to help run the federation.

The executive vice president position is sought by the Sweeney camp for the third member of its ticket, Linda Chavez-Thompson, a Latina who would become the first non-white in a senior AFL-CIO post.

The problem facing the Sweeney campaign, however, is that a two-thirds vote would be required to pass the constitutional amendment establishing the position. Lacking that much support, the Sweeney forces decided to delay the vote on the amendment until after the presidential election, hoping that some Donahue backers will agree to support the measure once their candidate is defeated.

Donahue became president of the AFL-CIO on Aug. 1 on an interim basis after nearly 16 years as the federation's secretary-treasurer. He moved up from the No. 2 job after the Sweeney campaign forced longtime AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland into an earlier-than-intended retirement.

The days events were capped by a speech by President Clinton, who arrived fresh from meeting with Russian leader Boris Yeltsin. Despite organized labor's continued frustration with Clinton over his support of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the union delegates and alternates on the convention floor repeatedly interrupted the president's address with standing ovations.

Clinton cheered the crowd by reaffirming his commitment to use his veto powers, if necessary, to block Republican efforts to slash Medicare and Medicaid programs and to preserve the earned income tax credit for poor families.

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