Prior to the recall vote against Gov. Scott Walker, labor signs are set to… (Nancy Stone / Chicago Tribune )
After labor was dealt blows in Wisconsin and California in Tuesday’s elections, many in the movement are looking toward Los Angeles for salvation. In 10 days, the leadership of one of the nation's largest public-sector unions is to be decided in a contested election, in itself a rarity.
The 1.6-million member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is scheduled to hold its 40th convention in Los Angeles beginning June 18, and members are choosing between Lee Saunders, the group's secretary-treasurer, and Danny Donohue, the head of New York's Civil Service Employees Assn., to head the union.
"What we’re going to see is unions regroup and fight another day, and in that regard the AFSCME convention in L.A. is critical,” said Harley Shaiken, a UC Berkeley professor who specializes in labor issues. "At issue isn't simply what you demand at the bargaining table, but how you confront an angry, apprehensive electorate."
AFSCME will have to rejigger public perceptions about public employees, said Gary Chaison, a professor at Clark University.
"Some people in AFSCME will say that what's happened in Wisconsin is the result of the Koch brothers," he said. "Other people will say, 'We’ve lost touch with the public, and the future depends on the public recognizing that we do make sacrifices.'"
Saunders would be the the first African American head of AFSCME -- he’s chosen Laura Reyes, who runs the United Domestic Workers (UDW) Homecare Providers Union/AFSCME Local 3930, based in San Diego, as his running mate. Donohue has picked Laura Goff, president of ACEA Local 3090, based in Los Angeles.
Labor experts say Saunders, who wrote a book with retiring AFSCME head Gerald McEntee, represents the status quo. He's running on a platform of growing the union's ranks, in part by including public service workers employed in the private sector, such as EMS workers, saying that group added 20,000 new members in the last two years.
Donohue's campaign contends that it would shake up the ranks of the union, pulling resources from national elections and focusing instead on state and local campaigns. He says the union has been too focused on national campaigns at the expense of states such as Wisconsin.
"Ten years ago, there wasn’t a governor who would be willing to take us on the way Scott Walker did," he said in an interview. "Now we could win the White House and lose our membership in Wisconsin and Michigan."
Democrats will have trouble winning without union support, but whether any union would follow through on the threat to pull funding remains to be seen. The International Assn. of Firefighters said it would pull its national funding last November, and then reversed that position in later months.
That's why labor activists such as Mark Brenner, the head of Labor Notes, says it will take more than leadership change to avoid public-employee concessions in states such as California, where Gov. Jerry Brown is in the midst of a pension reform proposal.
"The strategy of compromise, that's just not working," he said. "At the local level, people are experiencing that most sharply. That's why there's jostling in a lot of unions, and its true in AFSCME too. We continue to see tug of war over how militant people are willing to be over things like raising taxes, cutting services. The stakes couldn't be any higher. There's a real risk that if things don't turn around now, it's unlikely it will turn around in our lifetime."