Portside Special - Reflections on AFSCME's 40th Convention:
Public Employees Elect New Leader in a Time of Crisis
By Gregory N. Heires and Ray Markey
Special to Labor Portside
Published by Portside
June 26, 2012
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
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
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
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
* 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
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
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
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
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
Tellingly, five of the six AFSCME affiliates in New York
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.]
PortsideLabor aims to provide material of interest to
people on the left that will help them to interpret the
world and to change it.
Submit via email: [log in to unmask]
Submit via the Web: http://portside.org/submittous3
Frequently asked questions: http://portside.org/faq
PS Labor Archives: http://portside.org/archive
Contribute to Portside: https://portside.org/donate