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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW

Gerald McEntee

Bringing Labor Into the National Political Debate

March 02, 1997|Harry Bernstein

His detractors, and there are many, say Gerald "Jerry" W. McEntee is an arrogant egoist, disliked by many union leaders, but even within that group, many have a grudging respect for him as a smart, hard-working leader. His admirers, and there seem to be more in this category, say, sure, McEntee is extremely self-confident, but that makes him a strong labor leader and effective in pressing for an ever-increasing role of unions in politics. He does seem almost consumed by politics and labor's role in it.

McEntee, president of the 1.3-million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees--one of the nation's largest unions--is vice president of the AFL-CIO and head of its political committee that poured more than $35 million into President Bill Clinton's reelection campaign, support that was critical to the race. Most of his colleagues on the AFL-CIO executive council, and Steve Rosenthal, the federation's professional political director, also wanted to give labor a more significant role in the campaign, but McEntee was the principal architect of that plan.

He is seeking more political allies in the minority and liberal communities, and has been partly successful. But the old liberal-labor-minorities alliance that was so important within the coalition that elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman has almost disappeared. McEntee's goal is to revive it.

He has the right connections to do it. He is vice president of the liberal Americans for Democratic Action and co-founder and chairman of the progressive think tank, the Economic Policy Institute. In addition, his union's membership is almost 50% women and minorities.

Born in Philadelphia in 1935, McEntee was among the first top labor leaders to earn a college degree. He was first elected president of AFSCME in 1981. He and his wife, Barbara, live in Washington.

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Question: Some union leaders are disappointed with President Clinton's continuing effort to get to the political center. Is that a widespread feeling in the AFL-CIO?

Answer: I don't think it's a widespread view of American labor leaders, and it's not mine, either. He's defending Medicare and Medicaid as entitlements. Education is at the top of his agenda, and it is certainly at the top of the labor movement's agenda. We worked hard to elect [Bill] Clinton and [Al] Gore and progressives at every level of government. We have already started to do even more in the next elections in every part of the country.

Q: Meaning what?

A: We must get more political activity in terms of money, of course, but we must get more labor members and our supporters into the field, to register voters and get them to the polls to vote. We must do more than ever to educate our members, and all workers, about the true meaning of political issues and let them know which candidates are going to help working people, not just the rich. In other words, we want a vast expansion of our political activities.

Harry Bernstein covered labor issues for The Times for 32 years. He interviewed Gerald W. McEntee from his office in Washington.

Q: Vice President Gore says he agrees with the president's goal to stay in the center of the political spectrum. If that is not where the AFL-CIO leaders want to be, will it be pushing for a more liberal presidential candidate in the next election?

A: We have to look where the Clinton administration goes, and Gore is part of the administration. Our position will depend on where they go over the next couple of years. I was tremendously impressed by the presentation Gore made on behalf of himself and the president at the recent AFL-CIO executive council in Los Angeles. It was one of the most pro-union, pro-worker statements I've ever heard on behalf of this administration.

Q: Did Clinton himself ever say anything like that?

A: He has said things close to it, and I was very impressed by Gore, but I was also very impressed by Rep. Dick Gephardt at our meeting.

Q: You spent substantial sums of money--at least $35 million--to help Democrats regain the majority of the House and the Senate in 1996. That failed. So was the expenditure worth so much of labor's money?

A: Oh, I think that was the best money that was ever spent in terms of the American labor movement. For the first time I can remember, the American labor movement was a crucial part of the national debate on issues like the minimum wage, Medicare and Medicaid and education. We saw the minimum wage passed in a right-wing, conservative-dominated Congress.

Q: But the president signed the welfare bill. Were you disturbed by that?

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