AFSCME Elects Chief Who Backs National Political Role

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees elected its No. 2 leader as president, signaling the biggest U.S. public-workers union will remain active in President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign.

Lee Saunders, 60, was seen by workers as a leader who would maintain predecessor Gerald McEntee’s push to spend on national political campaigns, while recruiting members among workers such as home- and child-care employees and in Southern states traditionally unfriendly to unions. McEntee is retiring after more than three decades in the top job.

“Now the union will pull together to win victories for working families and our members all across this great country,” Saunders said in a statement after yesterday’s vote. “Wall Street and their allies are engaged in an all-out assault against our members and the services we provide. They know that AFSCME stands in the way of their efforts to destroy the middle class.”

Saunders’ opponent, Danny Donohue, the head of New York’s Civil Service Employees Association, conceded the election in a statement last night. Saunders had 54 percent of the vote, compared with 46 percent for Donohue, AFSCME said.

Saunders’ supporters said his experience in the national office would be beneficial after unions lost an effort to recall Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker and were set back when two California cities voted to overhaul worker benefits.

‘Union Busting’

“It comes down to who is the best leader,” Michael Dempsey, a representative of Local 1912 in Binghamton, New York, said before yesterday’s vote at the union’s biennial convention in Los Angeles. “There is so much going on with union busting, especially in places like Wisconsin.”

Donohue had said before the convention that the union has become too much of “a top-down organization.” In an interview, Donohue pledged to shift money from national elections to state and local votes.

In his concession statement last night, Donohue said he would keep fighting for “a better union.”

“We believe more of AFSCME’s resources should be devoted to winning the fight on the ground in battlegrounds all across this nation,” he said. “Our councils and local unions desperately need added support from our national union.”

Labor groups such as AFSCME spent about $450 million, a record, in 2008 helping elect Democrats to the White House and Congress, including through political-action committees. McEntee, 77, pledged more than $90 million to elect Democrats this year.

Supporting Obama

“The unions will make huge investments in trying to turn out Democratic voters,” said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “The union organizers will work side-by-side with the Obama campaign to turn out Democratic voters.”

Labor remains supportive of Obama, with 57 percent of union members who are registered to vote supporting him, compared with 35 percent for his likely Republican opponent Mitt Romney, according to a Gallup poll released June 11. Among government employees who are members of unions, Obama’s support rises to 59 percent and Romney’s slips to 34 percent, according to Gallup.

The AFSCME race was a rematch from 2010, when Saunders and Donahue sought to be secretary-treasurer. Saunders won that year by about 3,000 votes from more than 1 million cast.

Before yesterday’s vote, supporters waved signs and handed out fliers for their candidates in the halls of the Los Angeles Convention Center. Delegates wearing AFSCME’s green shirts were hard to spot as Donohue supporters in blue shirts and Saunders backers in yellow sought to round up votes from delegates.

Bus Driver

The son of a bus driver and a community activist in Cleveland, Saunders started as a worker in Ohio employment services in 1975. He joined AFSCME as a labor economist in 1978 and later worked as an administrator of several AFSCME councils, including District Council 37, New York City’s largest.

Delegates also voted to cut the salary of the president, which had climbed to $387,000 for McEntee, who was first elected president in 1981. The delegates approved a measure on June 20 reducing the pay to $295,000.

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