Election at public employees union centered on debate over Dem primaries

The official running for the second-ranking position of the national public employees union wants to increase the number of primary challengers for Democrats moving against labor’s agenda. 

“I hope it would happen more, because unfortunately over the last year we have seen a darker side of our friends who have not stood up for principles that labor has espoused for years,” Danny Donohue told The Hill in an interview.

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Donohue is running for secretary-treasurer at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. AFSCME members next week will elect a new secretary-treasurer at their national convention in Boston.

Donohue now serves as president of AFSCME’s largest affiliate union, the 265,000 member-strong New York State Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA). 

“To see Democrats acting more like conservative Republicans, it is not even laughable, it’s sad,” Donohue said.

Donohue’s candidacy is backed by the current AFSCME No. 2, Bill Lucy. His competition is Lee Saunders, the executive assistant to AFSCME President Gerry McEntee. Saunders has his boss’s full support. 

The election has huge implications for the future of the union and labor’s ongoing political strategy. 

The winner could be the next president of the powerful union, as McEntee’s term expires in 2012.

 AFSCME has said it plans to spend about $50 million on political operations for the 2010 midterm elections, making it one of labor’s biggest players during this campaign. The effort is being spurred by McEntee, who heads the AFL-CIO’s political committee, where he helps direct the labor federation’s political endorsements and campaign money across the country. 

Donohue wants to focus the labor group more on what is going on outside of the nation’s capital. He’d make all resources available to state councils and local unions, which could reduce the role of AFSCME, a traditional and strong ally of Democrats, in federal politics.

“My perspective is as a rank-and-file leader. While Washington politics is important, it can’t supersede support for those who are fighting against layoffs, privatization and trying to protect their communities from anti-government forces regardless of the political party they represent,” Donohue said. 

Donohue, a self-declared Democrat, has spent decades in the union. The Brooklyn-born labor leader was working as an attendant at a psychiatric center when he became the facility’s local union president in 1975. He climbed the union hierarchy and was first elected CSEA’s president in 1994. 

He said he wants to reach out to Republicans, now among unions’ biggest detractors. To find labor’s friends in the GOP, Donohue said, union officials should build relationships with Republican politicians while they are serving in the state legislature before they jump up to House member or senator. 

“We have to work from the grassroots level to begin with. When you get those Republicans early on and work with them right from the beginning, that helps,” Donohue said. “They might not always agree with you, but at least they will understand you.”

Donohue noted CSEA has endorsed Republican lawmakers in the past, including ex-Gov. George Pataki (R).

In a statement, Saunders said AFSCME shouldn’t support incumbents who don’t support labor, but that unions must keep their focus on helping Democrats control the House and Senate. 

“We have made it clear to the Democratic Party that AFSCME will not support incumbents who talk the talk but don't walk the walk,” he said. “But it's important to be smart and strategic about this — anyone who thinks a House of Representatives led by John Boehner and a Senate led by Mitch McConnell would be good for labor and working men and women simply hasn't been paying attention.”

Donohue said it was right for labor to support a primary challenge to Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), who ended up winning a tight runoff race last month. It was vital for unions to send a message to Democrats backing away from labor’s agenda that union support cannot be taken for granted, he said.

Support for that agenda appears to be wavering in this Congress. 

The Senate is struggling to pass a jobs bill that will provide money for states to retain government employees and AFSCME members. The union has already released a television ad in Maine to pressure Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) to support the bill. 

Other legislative priorities for labor have fallen by the wayside as well, despite Democrats controlling both houses of Congress and the White House. A government-run insurance program, known as “the public option,” was not included in the final healthcare reform bill, while legislation that would make union organizing much easier has stalled in the Senate. 

That inaction and a lifetime in government work has Donohue wanting to hold Democrats accountable and ready to defend the public sector. 

He is quick to stand up for government employees, who are finding their union pensions under attack from Tea Party activists and state governors — like New Jersey’s Chris Cristie, a Republican — looking to reduce their budget deficits.

“Government is not the problem. It is now when government services are most in need,” Donohue said. “When there are weather disasters, economic crises or environmental emergencies, we expect our government to be there. We criticize for not doing enough and in the same breath say government is too big and bureaucratic.”