Will Wisconsin Wake-Up Call Lead to Shake-Up in AFSCME?

Danny Donohue, left, and Lee Saunders both want the AFSCME presidency in next Thursday's election. Some say the fact that Saunders is 30-year incumbent Gerry McEntee's handpicked successor is reason enough to vote against him; others aren't so sure. Photos: Jim West/jimwestphoto.com.

Last week’s election day was a bad day for public workers. Voters in San Diego and San Jose, California, cut retirement benefits for their city employees. In Wisconsin, labor and its allies failed to oust Republican Governor Scott Walker, who had stripped his employees in the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees and other unions of their 50-year-old right to bargain contracts.

Within AFSCME, the nationwide rollback of 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 1.4 million-member union. Members of Wisconsin’s AFSCME Council 40 are among those headed for a June 18-22 showdown at the national union’s convention in Los Angeles.

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

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. McEntee also earned enmity by ramrodding through an endorsement of Hillary Clinton in 2008, over the objections of a significant minority of the board, which backed Barack Obama.

At a raucous convention in Boston in 2010, Saunders received 652,660 votes to Donohue’s 649,356. (AFSCME delegates cast votes reflecting the relative membership of the locals they represent.)

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 woman secretary-treasurer. On the Moving Forward Together ticket, Saunders is running with former homecare worker Laura Reyes, who serves on the AFSCME executive board and as president of Local 3930 in southern California. Donohue’s One AFSCME team includes Alice Goff, an immigrant from Belize, who is a former Los Angeles city worker and five-term president of 22,000-member 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 childcare provider who will be at the convention next week. At a meeting of District Council 40 delegates in April, Sheehan and others won a 291 to 7 vote endorsing Donohue and Goff (two years ago the council was evenly split between Donahue and Saunders).

What made District Council 40 more receptive to Donohue’s challenge now? According to Marv Vike, a highway maintenance worker from Rock County, Wisconsin, the intervening political offensive by “right-wing nuts” was a major wake-up call. “We cannot let our guard down, ever again,” Vike says. “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 District Council 37 in New York City after it became mired in corruption in the late 1990s. He defends McEntee’s legacy and pledges to strengthen AFSCME’s existing coalitions with non-labor groups “to save pensions, end privatization, and stop budgets cuts around the country.”

Saunders also disputes Donohue’s claim to be the reformer in the race. He accuses Donohue of failing to protect CSEA members from contract concessions last year and of not organizing enough new members (although CSEA teamed up with another union to organize 60,000 childcare providers five years ago).

Donohue has countered that McEntee and his protegé, Saunders, have been overly focused on politics inside the Beltway. 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 public profile. This spring he and McEntee even published (a ghost-assisted) book titled The Main Street Moment: Fighting Back to Save the American Dream, which 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 either camp 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 disagreements 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 said that because some of his past union foes are backing Donohue, Saunders must be “the more progressive.”



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Activists who took over another Golden State local seem to agree. Kathyrn Lybarger, a gardener at the University of California-Berkeley, was elected last November as president of 21,000-member Local 3299 on a reform slate called Members First, defeating a longtime Saunders ally who had negotiated givebacks and lost touch with the rank and file.

The incumbent and her allies then tried to lock the winners out of the union office and filed charges aimed at restoring themselves to power. (Their final appeal of the election will be heard at the Los Angeles convention.)

In April, Lybarger and the new board of Local 3299 conducted phone interviews with 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.”

A Donohue adviser suggested that Local 3299 leaders had embraced Saunders to avoid being put under trusteeship or losing national union support for their contract campaign.

Agree to Disagree

In Chicago, another left-leaning local union officer favors Donohue, on a “lesser evil” basis, simply because “Danny is not Gerry McEntee’s hand-picked successor.” Steve Edwards, the soon-to-be-retired president of AFSCME Local 2858, has attended nine national conventions and is a long-time dissident within District Council 31, whose top officers, Henry Bayer and Roberta Lynch, are Democratic activists and key Donohue backers on the AFSCME executive board.

At the union's last convention, Edwards spoke from the floor to say 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."

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, no matter which team ends up encamped there.

As president, McEntee has long enjoyed the services of a full-time chauffeur for his union car, plus costly charter flights and years of first-class travel back and forth between Washington, D.C., and his primary residence in Naples, Florida. His total compensation now exceeds $500,000 a year, while Saunders receives $310,000, along with another $123,000 for expenses and benefits.

Edwards was scornful of Donohue’s proposal to accept a presidential salary of “only” $295,000, noting 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.

Under a constitutional change Donohue proposes, the national secretary-treasurer’s pay would drop to a mere quarter of a million dollars. When quizzed about this by Council 40 members in April, Saunders refused to say whether he supports the headquarters pay cuts, though many AFSCME members are suffering cuts or freezes.

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. National executive board members have spent much time since January skirmishing about what the convention ground rules will be. 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 once they get to Los Angeles).

Neither candidate advocates letting the entire AFSCME membership vote for top officers, a form of democracy practiced by only a handful of national unions.

But 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.

Steve Early is a labor journalist, lawyer, and longtime organizer who has aided union reformers in the Mine Workers, Teamsters, Steelworkers, Communications Workers, Service Employees, and other unions. He is the author, most recently, of The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor from Haymarket Books.


4dworkers2control (not verified) | 06/29/12

It boggles the mind. How could anyone considering themselves progressive union reformers have backed Lee Saunders? After decades serving at the side of McIntee, a labor leader notorious for his heavy handed methods, extravagant use of dues money to support his personal lifestyle (commuting from Florida to work in private charter jets to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars of dues money), Saunders did not come to this election unstained. These budgets lacked transparency, even to the International Vice Presidents.

McIntee, and Saunders alongside him, developed a relationship with the Democratic Party in which there was not only no sunshine between AFSCME and the Dems, where campaigning (such as in Wisconsin) was couched in the talking points imposed by the Democratic Party (so that an International staffer complained to me they were unable to talk to working people about labor’s issues when walking door-to-door), but incorporated us with a seat for himself in the Democratic National Committee (now Saunders’ seat). This man believed he was part of running the Democratic Party (a dangerous delusion), and had a lifestyle to match. Saunders pledged at the convention to continue the political work McIntee established. The Donohue campaign said Saunders was an inside-the-beltway man because that’s how he was trained, and that’s a lot of what he did and will do. The prohibition to speak in labor’s voice, a strategy the International and Saunders were responsible for, contributed to labor’s failure to kick the bum out. As Mark Brenner said, “Twenty-five percent of union-member voters chose Scott Walker, and 38 percent of all those from union households did the same.”

This is the labor bureaucracy.

Due to the pressure of the Donohue campaign, Saunders began adopting some Donohue-esque positions. He came to agree with Donohue on reducing the bloated salary for the International President by $90,000, down to a mere $290,000. (Yes, McIntee did quite well for himself.) Saunders came to agree with Donohue that we needed to discuss a change in our priorities to deal with the severity of the attacks. One thing is sure, however. No matter how often he echoed the Donohue campaign and declared we will hold all politicians accountable, regardless of party, Saunders is and will continue to be up to his eye-balls in the Democratic Party, emptying the coffers of AFSCME to support one after another “friend of labor.”

It makes little sense to compare a contract negotiated by Saunders in entirely different economic circumstances to the CSEA contract negotiated during the worst global economic crisis since the Great Depression, in circumstances where unions and workers are under a full scale assault (which LN describes so well in Issue 400, Future Tense). Saunders and his supporters spent the last two years whipping up blame and resentment on Donohue for the take-backs (contract was actually negotiated by a negotiating team without Donohue’s involvement) that were more accurately due to the tremendously difficult times we all are negotiating under now. The rank and file members of CSEA voted overwhelmingly to re-elect Donohue as their president following these negotiations where thousands of threatened layoffs were avoided.

As for rolling over to Cuomo on tiering pensions, that’s just not true. Donohue and CSEA, the state’s largest public employees union, were furious and made an unprecedented decision to halt all political contributions and endorsements for the foreseeable future. (Even during the 2010 campaign, some unions –including CSEA – withheld support from Cuomo, in response to his talk about public employee pay freezes, union givebacks and government spending reductions.)
Donohue said, “CSEA will also use this time to consult with our brother and sister unions and other allied community organizations about how we can collectively address the disrespect and disenfranchisement of working people by our state’s elected officials,” and further, “New Yorkers should understand that lawmakers’ actions did not result from meaningful debate and good judgment – it resulted from political expediency – and it will have harmful consequences to people and communities now and for a long time to come. CSEA will seek better ways to hold elected officials accountable and ensure that the voices of working people will be heard and addressed in New York state.”
I don’t care how many dramatic speeches Saunders makes, which, in fevered pitch, he declares himself to be a fighter who never backs down and never gives up. It’s theater. It does not change the capitalist global forces arrayed against labor and all the bluster in the world won’t produce one better contract clause.

Arguing that a purported “good-negotiator” leadership was better than a leadership fighting for more independence, more transparency, and for more funds on the ground, reminds me of Andy Stern’s thinking: members do not care about democracy so much as good contracts. It’s not the individual skills of a chief negotiator, but the membership, like the Chicago teachers, mobilizing and organizing in their own voice, who are the best negotiators for decent contracts. The best leadership is one that knows that.

Donohue has been a leader and an organizer of CSEA, which grew to become the largest single affiliate of AFSCME. When longtime Secretary-Treasurer Bill Lucy retired in 2010, he encouraged Donohue to run to continue the fight for political independence (read: more separation, unfortunately not a labor party) from the Democratic Party, more rank and file democracy, transparency, and for less abuse of office both financially and organizationally.

So one of Donohue’s key planks was to reduce the independent political expenditures (such as the recent Florida $1.5 million ad against Romney AFSCME paid for), and put it on the ground for the locals and councils waging the fights that are critical to labor’s existence.

Take the point made by Wisconsin delegates who explained that in 2011 Wisconsin Council 40 was forced to reduce its staffing level by 35% during the height of the assault on workers’ rights, saying: “Undoubtedly, the International Union did much to help battle Scott Walker in Wisconsin, but as is too often the case, the focus was on media and politics, not on strengthening local affiliates so that we would have the ability to carry the fight forward once the ballots were tallied and the cameras stopped rolling.”

Saunders held sway at the most undemocratic convention to date, where:

• a new low in campaign behavior: texts, emails, postcards, flyers were distributed by Saunders supporters that smacked of PR tactics more akin to Karl Rove than anything I’ve ever seen in the labor movement. Opponents were accused of being like Papa Doc in Haiti; called names like “Wall Street Alice,” with misinformation cynically and liberally used. This created an atmosphere of irrational hostility that doesn’t belong in the labor movement;

• the decision of the chair was unassailable (chair decided by his hearing whether the ayes or nays won, and when a division of the house was called for, decided by his vision, refusing multiple requests for a count by the Sargeants of Arms (a long-standing previous practice in AFSCME);

• a duly elected president was removed from office and from the floor of the convention, based on factionally-motivated Judicial Panel rulings (that contradicted prior Judicial Panel rulings for the same charges in the same local), and replaced by an officer loyal to Saunders;

• factionally-run administratorships in several locals and significant evidence of rigged elections further torqued the vote towards Saunders;

• a newly elected leadership holding tens of thousands of votes was revealed to have won their campaign due in large measure because it was run by full-time staff loyal to Saunders, in violation of the International’s rules and the constitution of the local involved, and not surprisingly, became Saunders supporters;

• the Saunders supporters voted enthusiastically against the motion of Donohue supporters to halt the practice begun in 2010 in Boston of having international staff carry proxy votes for non-attending locals that they farmed nationally and cast in this election. If Markey did not distinguish himself from his fellow Saunders’ supporters and voted for this top-down undemocratic procedure, all I can say is, while he may have led the CRC years’ ago, he’s much older than that now. This was a vote for International control from the top down, if there ever was one.

For the sake of accuracy, Markey does not have all of his figures quite right. It was Alice Goff’s local votes that counted along with the 40 of 49 locals in the Council who supported Donohue. The Executive Director of our Council, Cheryl Parisi, not Goff, had 1 vote. Also, the UDW voting strength was 60,227.

Saunders has been elected, by hook or by crook. While the alternative leadership was not perfect (did not call for a Labor Party, for ex.), it is sad that someone like Markey had a lesser vision of AFSCME (a purported "good-negotiator" leadership that had decades enforcing a top-down heavy-fisted International) than the hundreds of thousands of workers in AFSCME who had a vision of a more democratic union that prioritized building the base and sought political independence.

AFSCME will pull together and the fight for democracy will continue.

--Andrea Houtman, President, AFSCME Local 800
VP, AFSCME District Council 36

Lakesha supporter (not verified) | 06/15/12

As a long time supporter of Lakesha and 2 time board member I disagree with the characterization of lakesha Harrison. Labor notes needs to check it's own archives because year after year you have made articles about how well 3299 was doing under her leadership.even in 2009 when there were furloughs undress lakesha 's leadership workers got raises in 2010 you wrote an article about the local under lakesha 's leadership was in sourcing instead of outsourcing, in 2008 you wrote an article about the historic strike and gains from it . So how can u print that there was a lost of focus and give backs. You are contradicting yourself. Also what were the give backs? As a service worker my salary has more than double and I know patient care workers have done even better than me.

Ray Markey (not verified) | 06/15/12

As a supporter of Lee Saunders I thought I would send off a few comments. Most of my comments have to do with some factual points. Steve writes that Donohue is the President of the 272,000 member CSEA Local 1000. According to Lee Saunders Facebook page as of January 2012 CSEA's per capita payments to AFSCME totaled 199,814. In a close election having 72,000 fewer voting members is no small thing.

He states that Alice Goff, running for Secretary Treasurer, is President of a 22,000 member District Council but Danny Donohue's Facebook page says her Local has 5,000 members. The head of a AFSCME District Council has 1 vote at the Convention. It's the votes of her Local that counts.

On the other hand he fails to mention that Laura Reyes, Lee Saunders running mate for Secretary Treasurer, is President of Local 3920 which has 62,000 members.

Steve writes that Wisconsin District Council 40 is supporting Donohue but neglects to say that Wisconsin District Councils 24 & 48 are supporting Saunders.

The article mentions Saunders criticism of the contract Donohue just negotiated for CSEA members in New York State. This is no minor thing. In fact it is central to who should be AFSCME President. The contract called for Triple Zeros, furloughs, increased member payments into their health and pension funds. All of this without getting a no layoff guarantee. As I write this CSEA members are being layed off across New York State. If this wasn't bad enough, there is now a Tier 5 and 6 Pension level because he rolled over and played dead to both Governor Patterson and Cuomo. Largely because of this the five other District Councils in New York support Lee Saunders, including every Local in District Council 1707. In the previous contest between them DC1707 supported Donohue.

When Saunders was Administrator of DC37 he negotiated a contract with the anti-union Mayor Giuliani that gave Librarians a 16 percent salary increase and everyone else in DC37 large increase.

Is Danny Donohue more progressive than Lee Saunders simply because he is perceived as an opposition candidate? What is so progressive about sitting on the AFSCME Executive Board and voting for 27 straight budgets and probably 99 percent of all resolutions voted on at the IEB.

I believe for a whole number of reasons that Saunders is more progressive than his opponent. But whether one thinks he is more progressive or not he is certainly more competent at the bargaining table. In these difficult times I believe this is the key qualification any candidate should possess and why AFSCME members should support Lee Saunders.

(I was the President of the New York Public Library Guild, Local 1930, DC37. I was also a DC37 Vice President when I retired. Besides that I was one of the leaders of The Committee for Real Change (CRC) that help get rid of the many crooks that had been running DC37.)