Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municiple Employees (AFSCME), the 1.4 million-member union that is the largest in the AFL-CIO, has told certain members of AFSCME's executive board that he will not run for re-election. McEntee has been heading AFSCME since 1981 and is the senior member of the AFL-CIO's executive council, as well as the longtime head of its political committee.
In an e-mail yesterday to members of his own executive council, AFSCME Indiana leader David Warrick wrote:
"Last night President McEntee called me to let me know he has decided to retire and will not be runnng for re-election. We did not discuss his reasoning for this decision but I had heard his health has not been the best lately. Under his direction our Union became not only the largest Public Sector Union in the nation, but also the largest Union in the national AFL-CIO, and I thanked him for his lifetime dedication to AFSCME and the labor movement. In our discussion he said that Secretary/Treasurer Lee Saunders will be running for International President, and he asked for our support for Lee. He does not know at this time who will be running for Secretary/Treasurer."
It's not clear whether McEntee will continue to serve until the union's 2012 convention or if he'll step down sooner, which would make Saunders the union's interim president. Saunders won the post of secretary-treasurer at the union's last convention by a scant 3,000 votes over New York state employee leader Danny O'Donohue. It's expected that Saunders and O'Donohue will battle for the presidency at the 2012 convention.
AFSCME's members are almost entirely public-sector workers, and, as such, have been the targets of Republican attacks at the state and local level in the past year particularly. The union has long been a stalwart of Democratic campagns, and McEntee was the union president who was closest to Bill Clinton when Clinton was president. He avidly backed Hillary Clinton in the 2008 presidential contest, creating substantial friction between Barack Obama and the union (and those union leaders who favored Obama). AFSCME did wage a massive campaign for Obama that fall and has been on the front lines of this year's elections in Wisconsin and Ohio, in an effort to overturn Republican legislation that deprived their members of collective-bargaining rights.
AFSCME rose to power in the '60s and '70s under the leadership of McEntee's predecessor, Jerry Wurf, who also positioned the union as an opponent to the hard-line Cold War politics of AFL-CIO chiefs George Meany and Lane Kirkland. McEntee continued in that tradition, most notably in 1995 when he led the insurgency that deposed Kirkland and installed John Sweeney as AFL-CIO president. It was a gutsy move on McEntee's part—no AFL-CIO president had ever left office save on his own terms until Kirkland was compelled to go.