The Wisconsin Wake-Up Call

Tuesday, June 5, was a disastrous day for public workers from the west coast to the mid-west. Voters in San Diego and San Jose approved retirement benefit cuts for their city employees, which led major newspapers to proclaim (accurately) that more “pension reform” of this type is on the way, despite worker and retiree resistance to it. Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, labor and its allies failed to oust Republican Governor Scott Walker who stripped the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and other workers of their fifty-year old right to bargain union contracts.

Within ASFSCME, the rollback of past collective bargaining gains and, in Wisconsin, the virtual elimination of bargaining itself, has given some activists a new sense of urgency about shaking up the leadership of their own 1.4 million member union. Since the labor-community uprising in Madison sixteen months ago, members of Wisconsin Council 40 of AFSCME have been in the forefront of rank-and-file struggle against public sector union busting. On June 5, they mobilized pro-labor voters in their own state in the failed attempt to recall Walker. And now some are headed for a June 18-22 showdown in Los Angeles, where they hope to do better in an uphill fight within AFSCME itself.

Next week’s vote by 3,500 elected delegates at AFSCME’s national convention will decide who takes over from 77-year old Gerry McEntee as president of the third-largest U.S. labor organization. McEntee is retiring this month after 30 years in office. Internal critics of his heir apparent–AFSCME Secretary-Treasurer Lee Saunders–view this hotly contested election as a rare opportunity to revitalize the union at a time of great peril for all public workers, including thousands of AFSCME members in California.

A national union staffer for more than three decades, Saunders was narrowly elected to his current position after his predecessor, Bill Lucy, retired two years ago. McEntee backed Saunders then too, but Lucy, one of the highest ranking African-Americans in organized labor, favored Danny Donohue, president of AFSCME Local 1000–the 272,000-member Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) in New York state.

In 2010, Donohue ran with the support of AFSCME affiliates increasingly resentful over McEntee’s high-handed leadership style and his running of the union, via remote control, from his vacation home in Florida. At a raucous convention in Boston in 2010– chaired controversially by McEntee himself–Saunders received 652,660 votes to Donohure’s 649,356. (AFSCME delegates cast votes reflecting the relative membership strength of the local unions they represent; district councils are coordinating bodies composed of officials from multiple AFSCME locals in a particular state or region.)

A Wisconsin Wake-Up Call?

In this year’s rematch for the presidency, both Saunders, a 60-year-old African-American from Ohio, and Donohue, who is white and seven years older, have California allies seeking to become the union’s first female secretary-treasurer. On the “Moving Forward Together” ticket, Saunders is running with former home care worker, Laura Reyes, who already serves on the AFSCME executive board and as president of Local 3930 in southern California. Donohue’s “One AFSCME” team includes Alice Goff, who is an immigrant from Belize, a former Los Angeles city worker, and five-term president of 22,000-member AFSCME District Council 36.

“We need Danny and Alice to bring back the focus of this international union to the members, to the grassroots, “says Anneliese Sheehan, a Wisconsin child care provider who is coming to Los Angeles next week. At a meeting of District Council 40 delegates in April, Sheehan and other activists in the fight against Walker won a 291 to 7 vote endorsing Donohue and Goff. This action represented a shift in Donohue’s favor from two years ago, when the council was evenly split between his supporters and Saunders’.

What made District Council 40 more receptive to Donohue’s challenge now? According to Marv Vike, a bearded, burly highway maintenance worker from Rock County,  Wisconsin, the intervening political offensive by “right-wing nuts” was a major wake-up call. “We can not let our guard down, ever again,” Vike says. “When members are facing the kinds of attacks we have seen here and around the country, we need rank-and-file leaders, who can help us rebuild this union from the ground up, state by state, city by city, county by county.”

While Donohue has stressed his background as a working member of CSEA/AFSCME, before he moved up the ranks into its top elected position in 1994. Saunders has emphasized his role in a series of appointed staff positions, including acting as trustee of AFSCME District Council 37 in New York City after it became mired in corruption in the late 1990s. Saunders pledges to strengthen AFSCME’s existing coalitions with non-labor groups “to save pensions, end privatization, and stop budgets cuts around the country.”  He accuses Donohue of failing to resist CSEA contract concessions sought last year by Governor Andrew Cuomo and not organizing enough new members (although CSEA teamed up with another union to organize 60,000 child care providers just five years ago).

Donohue has countered that McEntee and his protege, Saunders, have been overly focused on politics inside the Beltway. As Donohue told In These Times reporter Mike Elk in February, “We haven’t done as much as we should have done in developing the capacity of state level affiliates throughout the country. I think some of our political investments at the national level haven’t been wise. I don’t think we should endorse every Democrat simply because they are Democrat. Sometimes, I think we should even look at endorsing Republicans on the state and local level when they support us.”

Since becoming a first-time elected official two years ago, Saunders has tried to raise his own public profile. This spring, he and McEntee even published (a ghost assisted) book entitled, The Main Street Moment: Fighting Back to Save the American DreamAvailable from Nation Books, it describes the current political attacks on public workers and seeks “to enlist even more Americans in the struggle to save the soul of our nation and return power once again to the people.”

Power to the People?

Not everyone in both camps favors giving more “power to the people” within AFSCME, however. The competing leadership slates draw their support from the same rival wings of the AFSCME bureaucracy that first squared off against each other in 2010, after many years of mounting disagreement between McEntee and Lucy.  As is often the case in union politics, the Donohue-Saunders rematch has led to some unusual alignments at the local level.

In northern California, one AFSCME reformer (who asked to remain anonymous) reports that he “was attacked by AFSCME international representatives and their small band of entrenched and opportunistic followers” when he and others “tried to bring democracy back” to his 5,000-member state employees’ local. Now some of his past union foes are backing Donohue so, in this member’s view, “the more progressive side of this conflict within AFSCME is the Lee Saunders’ group.”

Kathyrn Lybarger, a gardener at the University of California-Berkeley and labor left activist, was elected last November as president of 21,000-member Local 3299 on a reform slate called “Members First.” As the Detroit-based newsletter Labor Notes reported, disgruntled university workers ousted Lakesha Harrison, “a longtime ally” of Lee Saunders, who had negotiated givebacks and lost touch with the rank-and-file. “With the backing of the AFSCME International, Harrison and her vice-president also mounted a campaign to change the local’s constitution to concentrate power in their hands,” according to Labor Notes.

When 5 of 6 top officers were defeated by a 2 to 1 margin, Harrison and her allies then tried to lock the winners out of the union office and filed “trumped-up charges aimed at engineering an international trusteeship to restore Harrison.”  (Their final appeal of the election will be heard at the Los Angeles convention.)

In April, Lybarger and the new board of 3299 conducted a 30-minute phone interview with both Donohue and Saunders. According to Lybarger, “Donohue said stuff that I personally thought my board would be responsive to.” But the vote to endorse Saunders was unanimous and little debated. “Saunders has actually come through for our local—not just in the last six months but considerably before it,” Lybarger said. “There’s a lot of rebuilding we need to do. We’re also trying to win a huge contract fight with the third largest employer in the state.”  (When asked about this presidential endorsement by a newly elected group of local union reformers, a Donohue advisor suggested that 3299 had only embraced Saunders to avoid being put under trusteeship or losing national union support for its 2012 contract campaign.)

Even Socialists Disagree

Meanwhile, in Chicago, another left-leaning local union officer favors (on a “lesser evil” basis) the presidential candidate backed by the same Illinois AFSCME Council leaders he often disagrees with. Steve Edwards, the soon-to-be retired president of AFSCME Local 2858, has attended nine national conventions; in Los Angeles, he’s backing Donohue because “Danny is not Gerry McEntee’s hand-picked successor.”  A welfare worker and member of Socialist Alternative, Edwards is a long-time dissident within District Council 31, whose top officers, Henry Bayer and Roberta Lynch, are key Donohue backers on the AFSCME executive board and local Democratic Party supporters. At AFSCME’s last convention, Edwards delivered a well-received speech from the floor pointing out that AFSCME’s “relationship with the Democrats is so stifling that we are quite unable to debate the most basic questions of importance to the unions–the only range of views that’s allowed at our meetings is what’s acceptable to one or another wing of the Democratic Party.”

“It does appear that Donohue wants to move away from total lockstep with the Democratic National Committee,” Edwards notes. But he “literally laughed out loud at Donohue’s proposal to only accept a salary of $295,00 a year if elected president”—because that would still give the CSEA leader a $90,000 a year boost in his current combined pay. Edwards notes that his own salary totaled $62,000 last year—much closer to the average earnings of AFSCME members. In a climate of concession bargaining and public sector austerity, Edwards says he has “no sympathy” for the lavish salaries and perks at AFSCME headquarters.

As president, for example, McEntee has long enjoyed the services of a full-time chauffeur for his union car, plus AFSCME has paid for costly charter flights and years of first class travel back and forth between Washington, D.C. and McEntee’s primary residence in Naples, Florida.  His total compensation now exceeds $500,000 a year, while Saunders receives $310,000 annually (along with another $123,000 for his expenses and benefits). Even long-time McEntee assistant, Paul Booth–and a one-time leader of Students for a Democratic Society– makes nearly $240,000 a year, a much larger salary than big industrial unions like the Auto Workers, Steel Workers, and Communications Workers pay their national presidents!

Under Donohue’s proposed constitutional change, AFSCME secretary treasurer pay would drop to a mere quarter of a million dollars each year. When quizzed about this by Council 40 members in April, Saunders refused to say whether he supports convention approval of the top officer salary reductions—a belt-tighening move that barely qualifies as “equality of sacrifice” when so many AFSCME members are suffering pay cuts or freezes around the country.

Democracy in Action?

As next week’s convention nears, both sides in the leadership fight are trading accusations about unfair electioneering—a continuation of the dispute between Saunders and Donohue about convention voting procedures two years ago in Boston.  AFSCME national executive board members have spent much time since January personally skirmishing with each other about what the ground-rules will be at this gathering. Disagreements have arisen (and some remain unresolved) over election observers, the role of union staffers who serve as delegates, and how individual delegates should be released from “block voting” by their locals if they choose to cast a minority vote for a different candidate (which the Donohue camp claims that delegates from some locals, like 3299, will do when they get to Los Angeles).

Both contenders for the AFSCME crown have agreed, in principle, to debate each other at the convention—an exercise in democracy that could be a model for other unions to follow (if it does, in fact, occur). But it’s revealing that neither presidential candidate advocates letting the entire AFSCME membership vote for the union’s top officers, a form of internal democracy practiced by only a handful of national labor organizations. While a one-member/one-vote system of leadership selection presents some problems of its own, it has helped bring about major changes in the United Mine Workers and the Teamsters, at various points in the past. And that’s because it takes decision-making power out of the hands of a few thousands local union delegates at an incumbent- dominated convention and puts that power in the hands of the rank-and-file. If the outcome of the Saunders-Donohue bout is the same as it was in Boston two years ago, supporters of Donohue may become new converts to the more democratic approach.

STEVE EARLY is a former national staff member of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) who has been active in labor causes since 1972. He is the author of The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor  (Haymarket Books, 2010).

Steve Early has been active in the labor movement since 1972. He was an organizer and international representative for the Communications Workers of American between 1980 and 2007. He is the author of four books, most recently Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money and The Remaking of An American City from Beacon Press. He can be reached at