Leaders of the largest U.S. union of government workers this week will choose a new president amid assaults on bargaining rights from statehouses and growing hostility from voters who view their benefits as an unsustainable expense.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees biannual convention begins in Los Angeles less than two weeks after voters in a pair of California cities approved ballot measures to restructure benefits for city workers and, in Wisconsin, rejected a union-led effort to recall Republican Governor Scott Walker.
“We need to adjust to the new situation we find ourselves in,” said Henry Bayer, a Chicago-based AFSCME vice president who is chief negotiator for Illinois state employees, said in an interview. “We’ll decide a course of action for the next two years and assess the last two.”
In addition to public-sector job cuts and tight state and local government budgets, the union is also facing its first change in leadership in three decades. The delegates are scheduled to vote June 21 for a successor for Gerald McEntee, who has overseen the union since 1981. The race pits McEntee’s No. 2 at the union against the head of its largest local, based in New York.
McEntee is scheduled to speak today at the convention, which runs through June 22.
Recent electoral setbacks reveal diminished public support towards government workers, Richard Hurd, a labor relations professor at Cornell University, said in an interview.
“It’s going to be very difficult for unions to turn themselves around,” Hurd said. “It’s how the political winds blow.”
With 1.6 million members, AFSCME is the largest union for employees such as nurses, correction officers, child-care workers and trash haulers in state and local government. Government workers have been one of the few bright spots for organized labor and became the majority of union members in the U.S. for the first time in 2009.
Republicans have targeted public-sector unions as a source of cash and votes for Democrats. Knowing the union benefits are paid with tax dollars leads to public resentment, said James Sherk, a senior policy analyst in labor economics at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
“They don’t add value for taxpayers,” Sherk said. “Instead they negotiate with elected officials for a greater cut of tax dollars.”
The union was an early supporter of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. It has already endorsed President Barack Obama’s re-election, though it publicly disagreed with him when he dropped an individual mandate from health care legislation and extended George W. Bush-era tax cuts.
Obama, who stayed out of Wisconsin during the recall election, doesn’t plan to address the convention, a change from four years ago when he spoke to the workers during his first run for president. Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled to appear in his place.
In addition to the Wisconsin and California setbacks, Indiana in February adopted a proposal that allows workers to avoid paying union dues, while Ohio last year passed legislation to limit collective bargaining. Unions fought back, winning a referendum that repealed the Ohio law.
“We are under attack from anti-worker politicians bankrolled by billionaires and Wall Street barons,” McEntee said in a statement following the Wisconsin election.
McEntee has used his tenure to expand the political influence of labor, serving as a vice president of the AFL-CIO and chairman of its political-education committee.
The son of a sanitation truck driver, he earns a base salary of $387,000 and has been criticized for his use of chartered airplanes. His rise through the ranks began in the 1970s when, as head of the Pennsylvania local, he helped persuade the state’s Republican governor and senate to give workers collective bargaining rights. That led to 75,000 new members.
The race to succeed him pits Lee Saunders, the union’s No. 2 executive, against Danny Donohue, who heads AFSCME’s largest local, the Civil Service Employee Association of New York. It is a rematch from 2010, where they faced each other for union’s secretary-treasurer post. Saunders won by about 3,000 votes.
Saunders, 60, is pushing for growth by organizing non-traditional workers, such as home-care and childcare employees, as well as adding members in southern areas that haven’t been friendly to unions. Saunders aims to change the focus away from workers who “have been demonized” for their benefits, said Richard Abelson, the executive director of AFSCME’s district council 48 in Milwaukee and a volunteer for Saunders.
Donohue, 67, seeks more spending at the state level, funding affiliates to push back against local politicians that propose Wisconsin-like legislation. This would be a strategic shift from McEntee who has pledged to increase support for Democrats in federal campaigns 2012.
“We need to re-evaluate how we spend money,” Donohue said in an interview. “We have become a top-town organization.”
The union should aim to build relationships with city councilmen, mayors and governors where money can go further than on the national level, he said.
Understanding the tight state and local government budgets, some unions have cut deals before more draconian legislation is imposed. Last month, the mayor and union leaders in Providence, Rhode Island, agreed to cut pensions for workers including police and firefighters, while preventing bankruptcy for the city.
While both AFSCME candidates have similar goals, the public face of the union can have a great impact, said Charles Craver, a law professor specializing in labor relations George Washington University in Washington.
“It matters more than ever with the unions really being challenged,” Craver said.