Countering the Siege
By STEVEN GREENHOUSE
Published: April 12, 2011
WASHINGTON -- Perhaps more than any other American,
Gerald W. McEntee has surfed the rising tide of public
sector unions to success and power. As leader of the
largest union of state and local government workers for
three decades, he has amassed enormous political
influence and a huge campaign war chest that he has not
hesitated to use to advance his union's interests.
But now, with public sector unions under attack in
deficit-plagued states and cities nationwide, Mr.
McEntee faces the biggest challenge of his career --
avoiding a wipeout.
In Wisconsin and Ohio, newly enacted laws will cripple
the bargaining rights of 200,000 members of his union
and may cause many to quit, jeopardizing the union's
dues base and political clout. The union, the American
Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees,
known as Afscme (pronounced AFS-mee), is also under
assault in Florida and New Jersey, where governors and
lawmakers are seeking to curb bargaining rights or
achieve far-reaching concessions on what many say are
overly generous health benefits and pensions.
Still combative at age 76, Mr. McEntee has pushed away
talk of retirement and plunged into battle to defend his
union, which has grown from 900,000 members when he took
over to 1.4 million today.
"The Republicans who were elected last November promised
to focus on jobs, but instead they're focusing on going
after the unions," Mr. McEntee said. "That's a big
In Wisconsin and Ohio, Republican lawmakers argued that
public sector unions had grown too powerful and that it
was vital to weaken public employees' bargaining rights,
so as to give state and local governments flexibility to
help erase their budget deficits. In what is largely a
decentralized union, Mr. McEntee is doing his utmost to
serve as national field marshal, strategist and
megaphone for the counterattack.
He sent money to Wisconsin to help fight Governor Scott
Walker's anti-union legislation, initially to mount the
huge protests in Madison before the law was enacted and
more recently to try to elect a labor-friendly Supreme
Court justice and gather signatures to recall eight
Republican state senators who voted for the law.
Mr. McEntee has also been pouring resources into Ohio to
promote a statewide referendum to overturn that state's
new anti-bargaining law.
Last week, he joined an emerging national battle --
fighting House Republicans' plan to cut Medicare and
Medicaid. In addition to plotting strategy with
Democrats, Afscme is helping to pay for broadcast ads
attacking Republicans. The union is also urging 250,000
retirees to fight the plan by contacting lawmakers in
"He's a very political animal," said Richard A.
Gephardt, the former House Democratic leader. "He'll be
effective in fighting back."
The son of a Philadelphia street cleaner, Mr. McEntee
followed his father into the labor movement in 1958,
becoming Afscme's top official in Pennsylvania. In 1970,
he played an important role in persuading that state's
Republican governor and Republican-led Senate to give
state employees the right to bargain collectively.
In 1981, in an upset victory, he defeated Afscme's
secretary-treasurer to become the union's president. In
1995, frustrated with uninspired leadership at the
A.F.L.-C.I.O., he engineered a coup that pushed out its
longtime president, Lane Kirkland, and installed John
Mr. McEntee relishes his active role in national and
state politics. He heads the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s political
committee, which has made him somewhat of a kingmaker in
deciding political endorsements, and was an early backer
of Bill Clinton for president.
After the Republican revolution of 1994, Mr. McEntee led
a labor-financed advertising campaign to help derail
Newt Gingrich's proposal to rein in Medicare spending.
And when Mr. Gingrich, then the House speaker,
precipitated a government shutdown, Mr. McEntee's union
again ran ads hitting the Republicans, helping turn
public opinion against Mr. Gingrich and in favor of
"Gerry's effort was very helpful," said Harold M. Ickes,
who served as Mr. Clinton's deputy chief of staff. "Once
Gerry makes up his mind on something, he's very forceful
In 1996, Mr. McEntee joined Mr. Sweeney to persuade the
A.F.L.-C.I.O. to spend $36 million, then a huge sum, to
help re-elect President Clinton and Democratic House
members. As the federation's political chairman, he
helped overhaul labor's campaign operations to emphasize
workplace fliers, door-knocking and get-out-the-vote
"He was the main mover and shaker in rebuilding labor's
political clout," said Steve Rosenthal, a former
A.F.L.-C.I.O. political director, who added, "He's a big
personality and he rolls the dice in a very big way."
Mr. McEntee's critics say he can be brash, pushy and all
too happy to pound political opponents in speeches and
Mark Neumann, who was a Republican congressman from
Wisconsin in the mid-1990s, still complains about the
"horrible" ads Mr. McEntee ran against Mr. Gingrich's
allies. One showed a middle-aged couple at their kitchen
table, with the wife worrying that she might have to
quit her job to take care of her mother if Mr.
Gingrich's proposals were enacted. "Gingrich and his
Republicans are starting to ram their Medicare and
Medicaid cuts through Congress now," that ad said. "so
they can pay for more tax giveaways to the rich."
"They were misleading," Mr. Neumann said. He said
Republicans were not planning cuts, but were merely
trying to hold down Medicare spending increases to 7
percent a year from a projected 14 percent.
More recently, some of Mr. McEntee's political bets have
gone more wrong than right.
During the 2008 primaries, he aggressively backed
Hillary Rodham Clinton over Barack Obama, at one point
saying Mr. Obama "has a problem with the blue-collar
work and relating to that worker."
Last fall, he claimed that his union had spent $90
million in the 2010 campaign, making Afscme the biggest
underwriter of the Democrats' efforts. Mr. McEntee now
regrets his boastful words, acknowledging that they
helped make public employee unions a target when
Republicans swept to victory in many states.
"Some of this is political payback," he said. "The
Republicans are thinking, 'The public sector unions are
a major political force, and if we weaken them, that'll
leave us with an awfully weakened Democratic Party.' "
Given recent events, public sector unions may well end
up smaller and weaker.
In Wisconsin, where Afscme was founded in 1932, Governor
Walker's legislation, which has been suspended pending a
legal challenge, would all but end collective
bargaining. It would bar state and local governments
from collecting workers' union dues for public employee
unions and would require employees to vote every year on
whether they want to keep their union.
"I don't see how unions can survive in this situation,"
said William Powell Jones, a University of Wisconsin
labor historian. "This bill is designed to make it
almost impossible to operate a union."
Unlikely as it may sound, Mr. McEntee asserts that his
union is on the offensive, not the defensive. He points
to opinion polls showing that the public backs unions,
not the Republican governors, in their recent clashes.
He says many union members are feeling so angry toward
the Republicans and so enthusiastic about their union
that they will want to continue paying union dues --
unlike in Indiana, where 90 percent of state employees
stopped paying dues after Governor Mitch Daniels ended
bargaining for them in 2005.
"We haven't had this kind of energy, this kind of spark,
in our union in decades," Mr. McEntee said. "Look at the
crowds that came out to protest in Wisconsin: 50,000,
70,000, 100,000. These people are jazzed up. They're
ready to do battle."
A version of this article appeared in print on April 13,
2011, on page B1 of the New York edition.
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