In September 2009, I was in Pittsburgh covering the AFL-CIO’s quadrennial convention when word arrived that Max Baucus, then-chairman of the Senate finance committee, had released his version of the Democrats’ universal health care legislation. It included a hefty tax on the high-priced health care plans enjoyed by many union members and fell far short of the employer mandate that unions were demanding. It was Gerald McEntee—president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME)—who summed up organized labor’s reaction to the proposal in a rousing chant that he started in the convention hall: “Bullshit! Bullshit! Bullshit!”
The chant was far from an expression of futile anger. Organized labor would prove to be a key voice in the fight for health care reform, and, in the months that followed the Pittsburgh convention, unions did in fact manage to reshape the legislation so it was more to their liking. At the same time, however, McEntee and his union were about to lose big on another front: The 2010 midterm elections brought in a wave of Republican governors and state legislators who immediately set out to eviscerate organized labor—above all, public employee unions such as AFSCME.
Today, some within the 1.4 million-member union—the country’s third largest—contend that McEntee spent too much time flexing his muscle at the national level and not enough time protecting the interests of labor at the state and local level. With McEntee now set to retire after three decades at AFSCME’s helm, that criticism is at the center of the contentious battle to replace him. And the outcome of that battle—to be decided in June—could have major implications for both the 2012 election and labor’s future relationship with the Democratic Party.
MCENTEE’S ANOINTED successor is Lee Saunders, the son of a Cleveland bus driver who has served most of his career in AFSCME’s Washington headquarters and, should he win, would become one of the highest-ranking black officials in labor history. But he is facing a vigorous challenge from Danny Donohue, the head of New York’s largest public employee union, who narrowly lost an election for AFSCME’s number-two slot to Saunders in 2010.
Donohue, whose bulldog mien would be at home in a William Kennedy novel, charges that Saunders and other AFSCME leaders have concentrated too heavily on national politics, leaving state capitals vulnerable to takeover by people like Scott Walker, the conservative governor of Wisconsin who, shortly after being elected in 2010, stripped unions of collective bargaining rights. “Lee Saunders was Jerry McEntee’s guy for years and isn’t bringing anything new,” Donohue told me. “When the crisis hits, they show up with a check and say, ‘We’re here!’ But the international should be there before a crisis. You can’t deal with [Republican politicians] once they reach certain levels. We want to be involved in town boards, school boards, mayor’s races, so these politicians know who you are as they are moving up.” As one example of what Donohue regards as AFSCME’s excessive focus on national politics, he cites its $950,000 ad buy attacking Mitt Romney in Florida before that state’s January primary. It would have been better, he says, to invest that money in the union’s grassroots network in Florida, notably the many underused AFSCME retirees living there.
Saunders, a bearish 60-year-old who can occasionally be roused to McEntee-style profanity, rejected these characterizations when I visited him at AFSCME headquarters. The union, he said, has long sought to balance spending in state, local, and national politics and will do so again as it allocates the $100 million it plans to spend this election cycle. “We’ve got to be players here in Washington. We’ve got to be able to portray our positions in a very strong kind of fashion. We’ve got to have those relationships here,” he said. “We can’t afford not to play in national politics, because it has direct impacts on the state and local level.”
The Florida ad buy, Saunders argued, was justified because “Romney is going to be the Republican candidate ... and you’ve got to soften him up in a variety of ways.” He acknowledged that the union may have grown slightly complacent in recent years—“I’m not saying we were sleeping, but maybe sometimes we were dozing off a little bit.” His concession went only so far, however. AFSCME, he said, had invested heavily in state-level races in 2010, but the GOP wave was just too big. And no one, he insisted, could have anticipated just how fierce the resulting anti-union assault would be. “I don’t think anyone in [Wisconsin] nor anyone around the country could have predicted that [Walker] was going to come after collective bargaining rights,” rather than simply union pay and benefit levels, he said. Moreover, he pointed out, AFSCME had been instrumental in the effort to recall Walker, which will go to a statewide vote in June.
AFSCME officials on the front lines confirmed part of what Saunders was saying. Chris Mabe, head of the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, which helped overturn sweeping anti-union legislation in a statewide referendum last fall, told me that AFSCME “has always been on the ground and involved in every local issue. I don’t recall a time we lacked for money, marble, or chalk.” Rich Abelson, director of one of AFSCME’s three Wisconsin units, agreed, but also contradicted Saunders’s suggestion that the scale of the anti-union attack was unforeseeable, saying that Walker had made his intentions clear during his years running Milwaukee County. “We weren’t in any way, shape, or size taken by surprise by what happened,” Abelson said.
While Donohue says he would mobilize AFSCME members fully behind Barack Obama’s reelection, if he defeats Saunders it seems quite likely that one of the country’s most deep-pocketed unions will be committing less money to national Democratic Party priorities. This shift, if it happens, could parallel a more general trend across organized labor. Union contributions to Democratic candidates at the national level are down sharply, a reflection of AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka’s vow to withhold support from candidates unresponsive to labor’s concerns. Unions have made plain their displeasure with Democrats for failing to push card-check legislation—which would have made it easier to organize workers—through Congress in 2009 and 2010. They have also expressed ire with the Democratic National Committee (DNC) for holding its 2012 convention in a non-union town, Charlotte. They are cutting back on the number of people (and dollars) they send to the event and planning a “counter convention” beforehand in Philadelphia. And a meeting a few months ago between DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Ed Hill, head of the electrical workers union, ended on bad terms, according to one union source who heard Hill’s angry account of the meeting at a recent AFL-CIO summit: “He went in to express his concerns and she said, ‘No one cares about you.’”
Meanwhile, though some in the Saunders camp say Donohue’s talk about pulling back from the national party is mere campaign bluster, the New Yorker swears by his warning. “I don’t want to be hostage or handmaiden to any party,” he says. “Sometimes our friends in the Democratic Party take us for granted. They have to earn their stripes with us.”
Alec MacGillis is a senior editor at The New Republic. This article appeared in the May 10, 2012 issue of the magazine.