High stakes for Dems in public-union vote

The country’s largest public-sector union will pick its new president on Thursday in a vote that could have major repercussions for the Democratic Party.

Lee Saunders, secretary-treasurer for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), is facing off against Danny Donohue, president of the Civil Service Employees Association — AFSCME’s largest local union, based in New York — in the vote at the union’s convention in Los Angeles. 

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The union election comes in the wake of a huge loss for AFSCME in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker (R) fended off a recall challenge inspired by his successful move to end some public workers’ collective bargaining rights.

AFSCME has been a reliable ally for Democrats and a source of considerable campaign cash. The union spent close to $12 million on independent expenditures for the 2010 elections, making AFSCME one of the biggest outside spenders that cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. 

Further, the union reported spending more than $49 million on politics and lobbying in 2011, according to Labor Department records.

AFSCME’s pull with Democrats was evident this week, when both House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Vice President Biden took time to deliver speeches at the union’s convention.

Any substantial shift in the union’s political spending could have huge implications for the Democratic Party — a fact that isn’t lost on either AFSCME candidate. 

Donohue says the union, which has already endorsed President Obama for reelection, needs to concentrate more of its spending on local and state elections, rather than federal campaigns.

Henry Bayer, Donohue’s campaign co-chairman, said a vote for Donohue would be a vote for change at AFSCME after President Gerry McEntee — a longtime fixture in labor and Democratic Party politics — steps down.

“People realize it’s time for a change after 30 years of McEntee’s tenure. Danny [Donohue] is seasoned. He’s ready on day one,” Bayer said.

“There’s no question that Danny knows it is important to reelect President Obama, but with his dealings with the party, he’s going to be tougher,” Bayer said. “They will be dealing with a different kind of animal.” 

Saunders’s supporters have countered that almost two-thirds of AFSCME’s political budget goes into state and local races. Further, they note that Donohue has sat on the union’s executive board and not objected to its political spending in the past.

“I know of no state or local race across the country where our interests were at stake where the international union wasn’t there with money, boots on the ground, whatever we needed to accomplish our goals,” said Rich Abelson, a Saunders supporter. “Why is this the first time it has come up? He had the ability for 20 years to make changes.”

McEntee’s pick in the race is Saunders, who was a senior aide to the AFSCME president before becoming the union’s second-in-command in 2010. Saunders’s campaign has sought to highlight his experience, including his involvement in fights in Wisconsin and Ohio, where labor helped overturn an anti-collective-bargaining-rights law in a citizen referendum last year.

“He has been sent into some of the toughest fights for this union over the past 30 years,” said Abelson. “Lee has been our go-to guy in our union and has been a great leader.” 

Abelson is executive director of AFSCME District Council 48, which represents city and county workers in Milwaukee.

The presidential face-off between Saunders and Donohue is a rematch from 2010, when the two officials did battle for the secretary-treasurer position. Saunders narrowly defeated Donohue in that race by some 4,000 votes. 

At times, the internal union race has had the hallmarks of a full-fledged political campaign, with allegations of dirty tricks and opposition research. Earlier this month, The Wall Street Journal reported on declining AFSCME membership in Wisconsin, as well as McEntee’s use of charter jet flights.

In a June 9 blog post on his campaign website, Saunders said those stories resulted from internal union leaks meant to damage his campaign.

“Clearly, these stories were intended to influence union politics. And they were based on internal AFSCME documents leaked by those who are willing to win at any cost,” Saunders wrote. “Sisters and brothers, there are many opportunities to air differences of opinion and concerns about union policies. But our opponents knowingly gave ammunition to the union’s enemies at a time when the right-wing media want nothing more than to destroy the labor movement.”

Saunders has said he wouldn’t take such charter flights if he’s elected president.

Despite the race’s divisiveness, Bayer said union members would come back together after the election.

“It might take a little time to heal some wounds. But we have got battles waging around us, with public workers under attack, so we will have little time for that,” Bayer said.

Bayer also is executive director of AFSCME Council 31, which represents public-sector workers in Illinois.

“Union elections can be very rough-and-tumble. We have to leave here on Friday united, and both Lee and Danny have pledged to work toward that unity if elected,” Abelson said.

McEntee underscored the need for the union to come together in his keynote address on Monday.

“Finally, let’s choose to be a union — and this is important, particularly this week — choose to be a union that’s united,” McEntee said. “As we work our way through this historic week, let’s remember what solidarity really means. That we’re in these fights together. We’re in them for the long haul. Let’s try to hear one another out without rancor, without anger.”