Union chief dismisses talk of rift between Democrats, labor

The new president of the nation’s largest union of public workers on Thursday rejected suggestions that tensions linger between Democrats and labor over their defeat in the Wisconsin recall election.

Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), said the recall that failed to oust Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) is in the past.

“It’s a non-issue as far I’m concerned. The election is over,” Saunders said in an interview on C-SPAN’s "Newsmakers" that will air Sunday. “Our coalition is intact. We are still mobilizing and educating and organizing our members and organizing those communities. We are prepared to fight back in Wisconsin. We are going to win, in the end, in Wisconsin.”

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Unions suffered a bitter loss after Walker fended off the recall last month. The result exposed tensions between Democrats and their labor allies, with many questioning the wisdom of the effort. Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) called it “a dumb political fight,” while Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) declared it a “big mistake.”

Meanwhile, Saunders’s predecessor at AFSCME, Gerry McEntee, complained that Democrats could have done more to help unions defeat Walker. 

Saunders, who was elected AFSCME president last month, downplayed talk of a rift, noting that national Democrats supported the recall push that began last year after Walker moved through legislation to end collective bargaining rights for some public workers.

The union leader said Walker’s win was a “disappointment” but not the end of the fight. 

“We don’t view Wisconsin as a loss. It was a disappointment. It was a setback,” Saunders said. “We were there yesterday, we are there today and we will be there tomorrow fighting the good fight.”

Saunders pledged an aggressive campaign this year by AFSCME, one of the most politically active unions in the country. The union has endorsed President Obama for reelection and has already purchased ads in opposition to presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

“We are going to be ready,” Saunders said. “We will be in every battleground state. We will be knocking on doors, making phone calls and our people are going to be engaged in this election.” 

Saunders mentioned several states, such as Ohio, Florida, Michigan and North Carolina, which could receive significant attention from his union for the fall elections. The AFSCME leader said state and local government elections were vital to labor as well. 

“We are going to play heavily in politics not only at the national level, but just as important, if not more importantly, at the state and local government level,” Saunders said.

Saunders said he didn’t know how much AFSCME would spend on its political program this election cycle. Past press reports have indicated the union’s political spending could reach up to $100 million. 

“We are going to be effective in utilizing our resources in Washington, D.C., and across this country to elect pro-working family candidates, and we are going to do that,” Saunders said.