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Will Wisconsin Wake-Up Call Lead to Shake-Up in Largest Public Workers' Union?

The nationwide rollback of collective bargaining gains has given some in AFSCME a new sense of urgency about shaking up the leadership of their union.

Photo Credit: AFSCME



This story originally appeared in Labor Notes

Last week’s election day was a bad day for public workers. Voters in San Diego and San Jose, California, cut retirement benefits for their city employees. In Wisconsin, labor and its allies failed to oust Republican Governor Scott Walker, who had stripped his employees in the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees and other unions of their 50-year-old right to bargain contracts.

Within AFSCME, the nationwide rollback of collective bargaining gains and, in Wisconsin, the virtual elimination of bargaining itself, has given some activists a new sense of urgency about shaking up the leadership of their 1.4 million-member union. Members of Wisconsin’s AFSCME Council 40 are among those headed for a June 18-22 showdown at the national union’s convention in Los Angeles.

Next week’s vote by 3,500 elected delegates will decide who takes over from 77-year-old Gerry McEntee as president of the third-largest U.S. union. McEntee is retiring this month after 30 years in office. Internal critics of his heir apparent—Secretary-Treasurer Lee Saunders—view this hotly contested election as a rare opportunity to revitalize the union at a time of great peril for public workers.

A national union staffer for more than three decades, Saunders was narrowly elected to his current position after his predecessor, Bill Lucy, retired two years ago. McEntee backed Saunders then, too, but Lucy, one of the highest-ranking African-Americans in organized labor, favored Danny Donohue, president of AFSCME Local 1000, the 272,000-member Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) in New York state.

In 2010, Donohue ran with the support of AFSCME affiliates increasingly resentful over McEntee’s high-handed leadership style and his running of the union via remote control from his vacation home in Florida. McEntee also earned enmity by ramrodding through an endorsement of Hillary Clinton in 2008, over the objections of a significant minority of the board, which backed Barack Obama.

At a raucous convention in Boston in 2010, Saunders received 652,660 votes to Donohue’s 649,356. (AFSCME delegates cast votes reflecting the relative membership of the locals they represent.)

A Wisconsin Wake-Up Call?

In this year’s rematch for the presidency, both Saunders, a 60-year-old African-American from Ohio, and Donohue, who is white and seven years older, have California allies seeking to become the union’s first woman secretary-treasurer. On the Moving Forward Together ticket, Saunders is running with former homecare worker Laura Reyes, who serves on the AFSCME executive board and as president of Local 3930 in southern California. Donohue’s One AFSCME team includes Alice Goff, an immigrant from Belize, who is a former Los Angeles city worker and five-term president of 22,000-member District Council 36.

“We need Danny and Alice to bring back the focus of this international union to the members, to the grassroots,” says Anneliese Sheehan, a Wisconsin childcare provider who will be at the convention next week. At a meeting of District Council 40 delegates in April, Sheehan and others won a 291 to 7 vote endorsing Donohue and Goff (two years ago the council was evenly split between Donahue and Saunders).

What made District Council 40 more receptive to Donohue’s challenge now? According to Marv Vike, a highway maintenance worker from Rock County, Wisconsin, the intervening political offensive by “right-wing nuts” was a major wake-up call. “We cannot let our guard down, ever again,” Vike says. “We need rank-and-file leaders who can help us rebuild this union from the ground up, state by state, city by city, county by county.”

While Donohue has stressed his background as a working member of CSEA/AFSCME, before he moved up the ranks into its top elected position in 1994. Saunders has emphasized his role in a series of appointed staff positions, including acting as trustee of District Council 37 in New York City after it became mired in corruption in the late 1990s. He defends McEntee’s legacy and pledges to strengthen AFSCME’s existing coalitions with non-labor groups “to save pensions, end privatization, and stop budgets cuts around the country.”

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