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Updated below with results of July 1 election
As the 1.6‑million member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) convened in Boston this week, the big public employee union was preoccupied externally with attacks on public workers, job losses and state and local budget deficits.
But internally, the landmark event was the retirement of William Lucy, secretary-treasurer since 1972, and the contest for his successor, which some observers see as partly a proxy vote on President Gerald McEntee’s leadership or at least, in the words of Illinois Council 31 director Henry Bayer, “the direction the union is going.” McEntee is supporting his long-time assistant, Lee Saunders, but Lucy supports Danny Donohue, president of Civil Service Employees Association, the union’s largest local, made up primarily of state workers.
Lucy has long been one of the highest-ranking and most public African-American union leaders. In 1972 he co-founded the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, and he remains president of the group, which promotes black workers’ interests within the labor movement, the black community, and political life generally. Reflecting his interest in labor international issues, he was an early leader in U.S. unions’ actions against apartheid in South Africa.
Yet Lucy has played a less prominent role than he might because of a long, deep conflict with McEntee. The tension dates at least back to 1981 when McEntee defeated Lucy in a vote by the union’s board for president to succeed Jerry Wurf, who had died. If anything, the estrangement has appeared to grow with time.
Lucy shared his thoughts about the future of the labor movement and AFSCME in a telephone interview as the convention opened. Rather than dwell on labor’s myriad problems, I thought we could start with where Lucy saw signs of hope, but he quickly shifted to problems. Above all else for AFSCME, he saw increasingly a “lack of support for quality public services,” even though a strong public sector is needed both to support private economic activity – with infrastructure, education, maintenance of public order and justice, and much more – and right now to stimulate growth.
“Nobody wants to pay more taxes,” he says, “but the public sector is needed to jump start the private economy. In the long run the stimulus will provide some relief, but there may be need for another stimulus.” And generating more good jobs in turn makes the public sector viable by producing more tax revenue. “What we need are good jobs with high wages and good benefits, not more minimum wage jobs,” Lucy says. “I would argue we need a high-wage recovery.”
On the whole, Lucy argues Obama has done a good job under the circumstances with a crisis-ridden economy and an obstructionist Republican faction in Congress, but he was upset by Obama’s public support for the Central Falls, Rhode Island, school superintendent’s dismissal of teachers when he failed to reach an agreement with the union.
Now public sector unions face not just efforts to contract out or privatize public functions but also right-wing campaigns to shrink government and its responsibilities. Most middle-class and working-class voters are, Lucy contends, more rational about the value of public services than somewhat more affluent Tea Party supporters, who include a large element who “are just about as racist as you can get.”
Lucy has for decades fought to make sure the voices of black workers and union officials got serious attention, and he thinks unions have made great progress since the early ‘70s. Then, he explains, unions – with the leadership of AFL-CIO president George Meany – remained neutral in the presidential contest between George McGovern and Richard Nixon, “without any real thought of the impact on African-Americans.”
Lucy concluded “we needed someone in the room to make known our concerns.” Progress came slowly, but by 1995 AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland opened more executive council seats to women and African-Americans, and shortly after John Sweeney expanded diverse representation on the council even more. The past two AFL-CIO conventions have endorsed more detailed reporting on diversity and encouraged promotion of women and people of color.
“I think we’re seeing different debates, we’re seeing different outcomes, and I think the movement is healthier as a result,” Lucy says.
Ironically, he’s now promoting a white local union leader over an African-American as his successor. “I’ve worked with both of these guys 20 to 25 years,” he says. “There’s a reason I’m supporting [Danny] Donohue: I know them both. There’s no inconsistency in my not supporting Mr. [Lee] Saunders and the issues CBTU and I think important….I can’t in good conscience say I’m supporting somebody just because he’s black. I argued there should be a level playing field, clear rules, and a chance to compete in equal situations.”
Lucy argues that Donohue, as an elected leader and not a career staff representative, is closer to members, more independent of McEntee and able to challenge him, and more a seasoned veteran of union battles. Saunders supporters point to his wide range of experience at the national union.
“We need to be stronger at the community level,” Lucy says. “Tip O’Neill’s right: All politics is local. To the extent we strengthen ourselves locally, we have great impact nationally.
“A union like ours is stronger when we understand what brings people to us,” he adds, continuing:
I’m not sure people join us for a nickel more an hour. They want a role in decisions about policies that affect their worklife. They join us because they fear unilateral action by political leaders. They want to be sure they have an organization that they perceive as committed to fairness and equity. If we lose that, people with us now start to look at us cross-eyed, and others not with us might see other option. I think we have national political strength to extent we have rank and file strength and rank and file commitment to national programs.
With globalization of economic activity, local unions and rank and file workers are now more involved in shaping labor’s foreign policy engagement than in the Meany-Kirkland days, when only top AFL-CIO leaders played a significant role, Lucy says, and eve public employee unions have reasons to unite across borders to fight privatization.
Beyond strengthening the role of members, unions like AFSCME need to better explain what they do to the public, Lucy says: “People paint the union as a special interest, but we best represent the American people. We represent working people. We have not been good enough sales people of the benefits brought to working Americans, union or non-union, by the labor movement. We continue to push a broad agenda concerned with social justice, economic fairness.”
The gains for AFSCME members, he argues, ultimately depend on making the jobs and lives of all workers better.
UPDATE: On Thursday, July 1, Saunders narrowly defeated Donohue in the contest for secretary-treasurer by a vote of 652,660 to 649,356. Normally, election to the number two post would position Saunders to succeed McEntee, whenever he retires, but the close election suggests ongoing division over both personalities and issues and an open debate about the future of AFSCME.
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David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.