Reflections on AFSCME’s 40th Convention: Public Employees Elect New Leader in a Time of Crisis

LOS ANGELES – The country's largest public employee union has elected its first African-American president, who stands to become perhaps the leading voice in organized labor's fight-back against the fiercest attack on government workers and services in modern times.

Lee A. Saunders, who started out his career as a civil servant in Cleveland and rose over the years to became the top assistant to Gerald W. McEntee, the colorful outgoing president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, was overwhelmingly elected to head the union at its 40th convention, which was held in Los Angeles June 18-22.

Two years ago, Saunders narrowly defeated Danny Donohue, head of Civil Service Employees Association Local 1000 of New York, in a hotly contest election for secretary-treasurer. But this time he handily knocked off Donohue for the top post.

The 2012 election was the first contested election in AFSCME, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, in more than 30 years and the second time in which a white candidate and a black candidate squared off for the presidency.

In his first election, McEntee defeated William Lucy, who went on to become the union's long-time secretary-treasurer, president of the AFL-CIO constituency group Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and founding president of Public Services International.

The roots of this year's election extend at least as far back as to the 2004 convention. That's when Lucy announced his retirement. Donohue and Saunders quickly announced that they would run to succeed Lucy, but they withdrew after delegates convinced Lucy to continue as secretary-treasurer.

This time around, what once was a sub-rosa campaign to portray Saunders as a McEntee clone became a focus of the campaign.

Donohue also vigorously argued that Saunders' election would cement the union's inside-the-beltway political orientation, draining funds for local and state needs. In fact, as Saunders pointed out, AFSCME allocates two-thirds of its political action funds to state and local races.

The Donohue supporters claimed Saunders along with McEntee had turned AFSCME into a cog in the Democratic Party machine and that this had been a disaster for AFSCME. They implied that if only the union had been willing to be more even-handed in its support of Republicans, public employees would be in better shape.

This is pure rubbish. In speech after speech at the convention, Saunders stressed that the union will respond with equal force to attacks on its members, whether the attacks are from Democrats or Republicans.
So what explains Donohue supporters' bogus suggestion that McEntee and Saunders are Democratic lackeys? The answer is clear: They were appealing to the conservative wing of AFSCME, the estimated 30 percent of union members who vote Republican.

Much of the venom of the Donohue camp seemed to be "anti-McEntee" and less reflective of a clearly articulated platform. But the Donohue backers couldn't get that poison to stick on Saunders, who seemed to win over undecided delegates through his convention speeches in his role as secretary- treasurer and as a candidate at the presidential debate, as well as through his speech as at a rally for a contract fight of University of California workers. (An AFSCME convention custom is to devote an afternoon to the struggle of local workers at the host city.)

At the convention, Saunders was unapologetic about AFSCME's willingness to open up its checkbook to ensure that the union is a leading progressive voice in national politics. But he also underscored his commitment to:

* building upon the union's growing multi-cultural membership base,?   

* empowering women, who make up the majority of the labor
movement and AFSCME,

* training and providing opportunities for the union's young "New Wave" activists,

* strengthening retiree participation,

* responding aggressively to the conservative and anti-union agenda of Republican and
Democratic governors and

* pouring resources into organizing campaigns (which have added 50,000 new members to AFSME's ranks the last two years).
Both sides clearly recognize that today, AFSCME's survival is on the line.

The debate is about the appropriate response.

The union confronts a concerted right-wing attack on collective bargaining rights, the ability of the union to collect dues and political contributions through payroll deductions, and the success of Grover Norquist's "starve the beast" strategy to eviscerate public services. State and local cutbacks during the Great Recession have reduced the union's membership by tens of thousands.

AFSCME remains deeply wounded from Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's signing of a law stripping public employees of their collective bargaining rights along with his subsequent strong defeat of an AFSCME-backed recall effort.

Confronted with this bleak picture, many delegates seemed to be focused on the gravity of the national political scene and were apparently not won over by Donohue's effort to make the allocation of union resources the central issue of the election.

Simply put, Donohue wasn't able to capitalize on what his supporters perceived as a deep simmering resentment over the national union's control of funds. At the same time, while acknowledging the setback in Wisconsin, Saunders was able to argue that the fight-back there has reinvigorated the labor movement. Also, he was able to point to the union's successful campaign for a referendum on Republican Gov. John Kasich's anti-collective bargaining legislation in Ohio and another campaign to scuttle Gov. Rick Scott's prison privatization initiative in Florida.

So, while McEntee, a pillar of the Democratic Party's progressive wing, clearly was a Washington insider, AFSCME cannot be charged with neglecting what's happening on the ground throughout in country, Donohue's claims to the contrary. And Activists know this.

AFSCME has poured millions of dollars into 12 "battleground states" where governors (including New York's Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo) have directly confronted the union, playing into resentment toward public employees.

Behind the scenes and on the convention floor, both camps played political hardball by questioning credentials of delegates.

Also, Donohue backers accused AFSCME of following the practice of former SEIU President Andrew Stern to install political allies in affiliates through trusteeships. But his campaign didn't detail its charges in public documents or statements.

The AFSCME Constitution restricts trusteeships to cases involving financial improprieties and decertification revolts. Only 18 of AFSCME's locals are in trusteeship. While Saunders could take credit for running the union's legislative and political ground game in battleground states, what did Donohue offer?

Critics pointed to his lack of visibility in the national union's fight-back activities. He failed to articulate a powerful and comprehensive alternative path. And he certainly couldn't point to his recent track record.

Donohue's current five-year contract for CSEA members includes three zeroes, furloughs and increased member's payments into health and pension funds, and health-care givebacks. The CSEA pact has boxed in other unions in New York, where public employee unions and employers generally follow the practice of "pattern bargaining" in which one union's pact sets the parameters of the negotiating climate for all unions.

Moreover, CSEA agreed to a new pension tier for its members at the end of the term of Cuomo's predecessor, Democratic Gov. David Paterson. That set the stage for Cuomo to ram through a widely criticized pension tier for all the public employees in the state a year later. The new tier requires public employees to work longer (as many as 12 years) and contribute more (as much as double) for a pension that provides less (up to 40 percent).

Tellingly, five of the six AFSCME affiliates in New York backed Saunders.

Donohue opponents charge that CSEA's concessionary bargaining will ultimately translate into a lower standard of living for more than 400,000 public employees and the undermining of the retirement security of future public service workers in the state.

Saunders' election takes on a special symbolism in AFSCME, which prides itself on its diversity and support for civil rights. Indeed, a New York City retiree poignantly shared with us how she offered a prayer for Saunders the night before his election.

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated when he traveled to Memphis, Tenn., in 1968 to support striking African-American sanitation workers in the union. And William Lucy spearheaded the U.S. labor movement's campaign to free Nelson Mandela in South Africa.

The candidate slates in the election reflected the union's diversity. Saunders ran with Laura M. Reyes, who heads the 65,000-strong United Domestic Workers Local 3930 in California. Donohue ran with Alice Goff, an African American, who is the president of Council 36, which represents city and county employees in many titles in Southern California.

Saunders defeated Donohue by 54 to 46 percent; winning 683,628 votes compared with 582,358 for Donohue, who received the lowest vote of the four candidates. Reyes defeated Goff by 661,413 votes to 603,624.

Under AFSCME election rules, the delegate votes represent a number of AFSCME members, not an individual. Virtually all unions in the AFL-CIO, including AFSCME, hold conventions with delegates to elect their top officers. Alone among major unions, the Teamsters hold direct, mail-ballot elections.

With just over 200,000 members in CSEA, Donohue only managed to get the support of 380,000 AFSCME members outside his local, while Saunders won double that without an electoral base.

But for all the union's pride in its diversity and roots in the civil rights struggle, the election, couldn't escape the politics of race.

A controversy erupted the eve before the vote when a Donohue supporter supposedly hung a stuffed toy monkey identified as Saunders on a convention pole, sparking charges of racism.

Donohue didn't do himself a favor when he appeared on the floor and declared that if "anyone accuses me of being a racist, I will kiss your ass." Some activists believe the comment cost him African-American votes.

(Days later, an offended New York City African-American local president said he strongly considered dropping his pants on stage before exercising self-restraint.)

When the convention opened, most delegates appeared to think the election was pretty even. The afternoon before the election, the word was the candidates were separated by 9,000 votes.

What explains the big swing for Saunders?

Many believe a lot of African-Americans deserted Donohue. Members sitting on the fence apparently were turned off by vitriolic attacks on the floor of the convention and the failure of Donohue to chart an alternative path for the union in the debate.

Will both sides live up to their commitment to a healing process?

Union leaders and activists are known for their long memories. Meanwhile, AFSCME is ready to continue the fight-back.

"We know that Wall Street and their allies are engaged in an all-out assault against our members and the services we provide," Saunders said after the election.

"They know that AFSCME stands in the way of their efforts to destroy the middle class. We are united in our commitment to stand up for the men and women who care for America's children, nurse the sick, plow our streets, collect the household trash and guard our prisons. Our members are a cross-section of America, not some elite group as our opponents try to claim.

"We are energized and ready for the battles ahead, including putting boots on the ground to ensure the re-election of President Barack Obama."

Labor Portside moderators Gregory N. Heires and Ray Markey attended AFSCME's 40th Convention in Los Angeles. Heires is a long-time, trade-union writer. Markey is a former president of the New York Public Library Guild Local 1930, one of more than 50 locals in AFSCME DC 37 in New York.

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