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


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.”

Saunders also disputes Donohue’s claim to be the reformer in the race. He accuses Donohue of failing to protect CSEA members from contract concessions last year and of not organizing enough new members (although CSEA teamed up with another union to organize 60,000 childcare providers five years ago).

Donohue has countered that McEntee and his protegé, Saunders, have been overly focused on politics inside the Beltway. Donohue told In These Times reporter Mike Elk in February, "We haven’t done as much as we should have done in developing the capacity of state-level affiliates throughout the country. I think some of our political investments at the national level haven’t been wise. I don’t think we should endorse every Democrat simply because they are Democrat. Sometimes, I think we should even look at endorsing Republicans on the state and local level when they support us.”

Since becoming a first-time elected official two years ago, Saunders has tried to raise his public profile. This spring he and McEntee even published (a ghost-assisted) book titled The Main Street Moment: Fighting Back to Save the American Dream, which seeks “to enlist even more Americans in the struggle to save the soul of our nation and return power once again to the people.”

Power to the People?

Not everyone in either camp favors giving more “power to the people” within AFSCME, however. The competing leadership slates draw their support from the same rival wings of the AFSCME bureaucracy that first squared off against each other in 2010, after many years of mounting disagreements between McEntee and Lucy. As is often the case in union politics, the Donohue-Saunders rematch has led to some unusual alignments at the local level.

In northern California, one AFSCME reformer who asked to remain anonymous said that because some of his past union foes are backing Donohue, Saunders must be “the more progressive.”

Activists who took over another Golden State local seem to agree. Kathyrn Lybarger, a gardener at the University of California-Berkeley, was elected last November as president of 21,000-member Local 3299 on a reform slate called Members First, defeating a longtime Saunders ally who had negotiated givebacks and lost touch with the rank and file.

The incumbent and her allies then tried to lock the winners out of the union office and filed charges aimed at restoring themselves to power. (Their final appeal of the election will be heard at the Los Angeles convention.)

In April, Lybarger and the new board of Local 3299 conducted phone interviews with Donohue and Saunders. According to Lybarger, “Donohue said stuff that I personally thought my board would be responsive to.” But the vote to endorse Saunders was unanimous and little debated.

“Saunders has actually come through for our local—not just in the last six months but considerably before it,” Lybarger said. “There’s a lot of rebuilding we need to do. We’re also trying to win a huge contract fight with the third-largest employer in the state.”

A Donohue adviser suggested that Local 3299 leaders had embraced Saunders to avoid being put under trusteeship or losing national union support for their contract campaign.

Agree to Disagree

In Chicago, another left-leaning local union officer favors Donohue, on a “lesser evil” basis, simply because “Danny is not Gerry McEntee’s hand-picked successor.” Steve Edwards, the soon-to-be-retired president of AFSCME Local 2858, has attended nine national conventions and is a long-time dissident within District Council 31, whose top officers, Henry Bayer and Roberta Lynch, are Democratic activists and key Donohue backers on the AFSCME executive board.

At the union's last convention, Edwards spoke from the floor to say that AFSCME's "relationship with the Democrats is so stifling that we are quite unable to debate the most basic questions of importance to the unions—the only range of views that's allowed at our meetings is what's acceptable to one or another wing of the Democratic Party."

In a climate of concession bargaining and public sector austerity, Edwards says he has “no sympathy” for the lavish salaries and perks at AFSCME headquarters, no matter which team ends up encamped there.

As president, McEntee has long enjoyed the services of a full-time chauffeur for his union car, plus costly charter flights and years of first-class travel back and forth between Washington, D.C., and his primary residence in Naples, Florida. His total compensation now exceeds $500,000 a year, while Saunders receives $310,000, along with another $123,000 for expenses and benefits.

Edwards was scornful of Donohue’s proposal to accept a presidential salary of “only” $295,000, noting that would still give the CSEA leader a $90,000 a year boost in his current combined pay. Edwards notes that his own salary totaled $62,000 last year—much closer to the average earnings of AFSCME members.

Under a constitutional change Donohue proposes, the national secretary-treasurer’s pay would drop to a mere quarter of a million dollars. When quizzed about this by Council 40 members in April, Saunders refused to say whether he supports the headquarters pay cuts, though many AFSCME members are suffering cuts or freezes.

Democracy in Action?

As next week’s convention nears, both sides in the leadership fight are trading accusations about unfair electioneering—a continuation of the dispute between Saunders and Donohue about convention voting procedures two years ago. National executive board members have spent much time since January skirmishing about what the convention ground rules will be. Disagreements have arisen, and some remain unresolved, over election observers, the role of union staffers who serve as delegates, and how individual delegates should be released from “block voting” by their locals if they choose to cast a minority vote for a different candidate (which the Donohue camp claims that delegates from some locals, like 3299, will do once they get to Los Angeles).

Neither candidate advocates letting the entire AFSCME membership vote for top officers, a form of democracy practiced by only a handful of national unions.

But both contenders for the AFSCME crown have agreed, in principle, to debate each other at the convention—an exercise in democracy that could be a model for other unions to follow if it does, in fact, occur. 

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