Labor leader retiring, public sector union's direction in question

The long-time leader of the country’s largest public sector union will leave his post next year, setting up a succession race that could have significant implications for Democratic politics in the 2012 election.

In a letter to union members Thursday, Gerry McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), said he would not run for reelection next June at the union’s Los Angeles convention after serving 31 years as its head.

McEntee is expected to support Lee Saunders, the union's secretary-treasurer, to take his spot. Saunders will have to face Danny Donohue, president of the New York State Civil Service Employees Association — a rematch of the union's secretary-treasurer race last year where Donohue suffered a narrow loss to Saunders for the no. 2 position.

With AFSCME as a powerful force among unions, the race could decide where and how labor spends its political capital in the coming years. Donohue told The Hill that that state lawmakers can be and should be just as important as their federal counterparts.

“We need to realign how we utilize our money and how we utilize our support. We have to be able to handle the home front as much as do Washington. If that means adjusting where we spend money and how we spend it, then yes,” Donohue said.

AFSCME was one of the biggest political players in the 2010 elections, spending close to $12 million on independent expenditures, primarily in support of Democratic candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign finance watchdog group.

Donohue is in charge of the largest AFSCME state affiliate and said he would bring a perspective to the top post as a rank-and-file leader. He said it’s important for the union to form relationships with politicians in both parties at all levels of government.

“We can win the White House and the Congress and lose our membership across the country. We have to be able to do both: grow the union and make it strong at home as well as in Washington,” Donohue said.

Saunders was not available for an interview Friday but did issue a statement upon news of McEntee’s retirement.

“I’ve just returned from joining our rank and file members in Ohio and will be back through Tuesday’s vote to defeat Issue 2 — which remains Job #1. Next year, we will have plenty of time to debate AFSCME’s future direction, but our focus now continues to be on protecting the rights of working men and women. We will never forget Jerry’s leadership and commitment to working families. I look forward to working with him in the months ahead,” Saunders said.

The AFSCME secretary-treasurer was referring to an Ohio voter referendum on legislation that curbs public workers’ collective bargaining rights.