Labor Rebels Against Clinton
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For weeks the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the largest union in the AFL-CIO, has been relentlessly criticizing Barack Obama's healthcare plan on behalf of their favored candidate, Hillary Clinton. AFSCME President Gerald McEntee has long been a controversial figure in the union movement because of his exceptionally close ties to the Clintons. But conventional wisdom said the union would boost Clinton, especially in Iowa.
Following the Iowa caucus, members of AFSCME's executive board had seen enough, taking the unprecedented step of rebuking McEntee's anti-Obama strategy in a letter to the union chief. "We are writing to protest in the strongest terms the negative campaign that AFSCME is conducting against Barack Obama," the letter states. "We do not believe that such a wholesale assault on one of the great friends of our union was ever contemplated when the International Executive Board (IEB) made its decision to endorse Hillary Clinton."
The letter continues:
We were therefore shocked and appalled to learn that our union-through "independent expenditures" is squandering precious resources to wage a costly and deceptive campaign to oppose Barack Obama. As Barack's standing in the polls has soared, according to numerous press reports AFSCME has spent untold dollars in Iowa and New Hampshire to send out mailings and run radio ads whose sole purpose is to undercut his candidacy. And now AFSCME has even registered a website with the explicit purpose of "opposing Barack Obama."
While we would not approve of attacks on any of the Democratic candidates in this race, all of whom have good relationships with our union, it is worth noting that AFSCME has chosen to attack only one of those candidates, Barack Obama.
It is also worth noting that the campaign that AFSCME is waging against Sen. Obama is fundamentally dishonest and inconsistent with past positions of our union, i.e. attacking him for not forcing individuals to purchase health care even when they can't afford it. The ads are misleading in attempting to give the impression that they are associated with John Edwards rather than Hillary Clinton and in their claims that Sen. Obama's health care plan will exclude 15 million people when in fact every person will have the opportunity to participate. This dishonesty is giving our union a "black eye" among many in the media and the progressive community.
Funnily enough, when I interviewed McEntee back in the spring, he had nothing but nice things to say about Obama. He called the Illinois senator "lightning in a jar" and described how popular he was among the union's Illinois delegation. At AFSCME's national convention in Washington in June, it was Obama, rather than Hillary, who stole the show.
Thus far, Obama has gotten by with scant union support. Another victory in New Hampshire and that could change.
Ari Berman is a contributing writer for The Nation and a Ralph Shikes Fellow at the Public Concern Foundation. He's currently based in D.C.