Gerald McEntee is president of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees and is one of the most powerful voices in the AFL-CIO. He has been clashing with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) President Andy Stern for some time over issues such as whether and how to reform the federation and labor's role in national politics. Although the two were the first major unions to endorse Howard Dean's run for President, which they announced together, McEntee was angry about remarks Stern made at the Democratic convention that were interpreted as not supportive of John Kerry.
The two unions also have bumped heads repeatedly as they both try to recruit new members among public-sector employees, where AFSCME often feels that the SEIU is encroaching on its turf. BusinessWeek Senior Writer Aaron Bernstein recently spoke with McEntee about reforming the AFL-CIO. Following are edited excerpts of their conversation:
Q: I understand you were upset with Stern for some of his recent statements about the AFL-CIO?
A:My point was there was an understanding that people were ready to talk about possible structural changes within the federation, but that everything was on the shelf until after the [Presidential] elections. But Andy spoke out anyway and did it in such a public fashion, including at the Democratic convention, where he talked about both politics and the AFL-CIO. Andy put his foot in his mouth, and I thought it was a disgrace, especially when he said that if [John] Kerry wins it will make structural changes harder in the AFL-CIO.
Q: Do you think the AFL-CIO needs to make major structural changes?
A:Almost everyone is willing look at possible positive changes. It's good to look at these issues, but to take on federation consistently, it's the wrong time, the wrong place, and the wrong thing to do.
I think they [Stern and his fellow union leaders in the New Unity Partnership, a group of five unions] defeat their own purpose by first going public with this. We hear about Andy's position before any plan is discussed inside the AFL-CIO. If you really want to make change, you don't announce the actual changes to the world without first having a discussion and debate in-house.
Q: Do you think Stern and the NUP are serious about threatening to break off and form another labor federation if the AFL-CIO doesn't make dramatic changes?
A:You have to take Stern at his word that he'll make an attempt to go if the federation isn't changed. But we went through all this years ago -- the idea of changing the labor movement, merging small unions, creating larger European-style unions -- and it never got off the ground.
Q: So what do you believe labor should do?
A:A major point here is that national unions historically and philosophically are national, and they don't want to cede any of their power to a federation. Also, no one can show me where mergers have produced any real dramatic change. It hasn't happened. Will it save any dollars? Maybe. But that's all.
Still, I'm not against change by any stretch. In fact, if you want do something bold, you would give the AFL-CIO a lot more power.