Socialist Alternative

AFSCME Convention Report: Public Sector Must Turn Towards Struggle

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By Steve Edwards, President of AFSCME Local 2858 (Chicago) and member of Socialist Alternative’s National Committee

Editor’s Note: This substantial historical account and report from the recent AFSCME convention, while quite long, is extremely important for the upcoming battles over budget cuts in this time of capitalist crisis. Giving a history of the union, an account of the Convention, a way forward for the struggle, and the text of the resolutions put forward by Local 2858, this article should be read with interest by trade union activists and socialists.

With 1.4 million current members and 200,000 retirees, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) is one of the biggest unions in the U.S., representing as the name implies, public workers at every level except for employees of the Federal government.

AFSCME members are therefore at the center of the struggle to preserve and defend working class living standards, as State and local governments, mostly led by Democrats and aided and abetted by the billionaires who own the media, are going after our jobs, pay and especially our pensions and other benefits. After the humbling of the once mighty auto and other unions over the past 30 years, our benefits, once correctly seen as mediocre, are now targets for cutbacks. The corporate media’s spin on the story is that other workers are now being taxed to pay for them – never mind the fifty years of tax breaks for the rich and big business which led up to the fiscal crises now faced by government at all levels.

Livable pay and working conditions, job security, health insurance and reasonable pensions are the way of life that many workers took for granted after the giant industrial battles of the 30s and 40s, and the mass actions of the 60s and 70s which extended the benefits of unionization to wider layers. All of these are now under attack, from the Right-wing Republicans who want us to go back to paying the doctor with a chicken, all the way up to Democratic President Obama who has applauded the mass firing of public school employees as a way to make them “accountable” for the problems facing our children’s education.

Unfortunately for all of us, labor organizations in the U.S. are mostly led by people whose lifestyles resemble those of the rich and famous a lot more than they do ours. These leaders are further insulated from reality by their own top-down organizational methods, which are designed to discourage awkward questions and other kinds of discussion and debate. Gerald McEntee, President of AFSCME, gets more than half a million dollars a year in salary in expenses – which go for crazy luxuries like using chartered jets instead of commercial flights, money that could be better spent in half a million ways.

The Union’s History

AFSCME went from a hundred thousand members in the early sixties to a million by the end of the seventies but not without brutal internal battles. In the 1950s the union had sunk to the level of a subservient staff association which took money from the State Department to break strikes in countries emerging from colonialism (hence the title “International” in the name of the union). It took New York-based organizer Jerry Wurf decades of organizing and arguing to overturn this rotten leadership, and the battle to clean up the union was inseparable from wider struggles:

“The body supply for the early (Civil Rights) Freedom Rides came from District Council 37. When white thugs moved in to beat up blacks who used a chain of hamburger joints in New York, we took out our heaviest and fattest laborers, and legally and properly saw to it that black people had access to this chain. When they needed bodies to picket airlines because they wouldn’t hire black staff, our union in New York led this.”
[From Joseph C. Goulden, Jerry Wurf: Labor’s Last Angry Man]

When a group of Black sanitation workers struck against a racist city administration in Memphis, Tennessee in February 1968, Wurf at first believed the timing was wrong (garbage piling up in the streets rots faster in the summer time), but when he saw the anger and determination of the strikers, he famously threw the full force of his then-300,000 member union behind the strike – despite the fact that it was illegal. Subsequently, Martin Luther King led a march and called for a general strike of the entire city. The march was broken up and attacked by the police, with some marchers responding violently, and when King returned to lead a second march in April he was killed by an assassin’s bullet. One outcome of this horrible tragedy was that the City Council, heeding public pressure, forced the Mayor to recognize the union. So:

“AFSCME Local 1733 grew to become the largest single union in the city, as employees in various city departments, both blacks and whites, organized. The victory of the strike also spurred public-employee organizing throughout the South and the country, as AFSCME became the fastest growing and one of the largest unions in the nation. [Jerry] Wurf said it represented the triumph of the principle of labor, civil rights and community alliances, and he hoped it would lead to unionization of the South [our emphasis – Socialist Alternative]. Out of this struggle also came a heightened visibility for black workers. William Lucy, one of the organizers in the strike, became secretary-treasurer of AFSCME, and head of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists.”
[Encyclopedia of U.S. Labor and Working Class History, Eric Arnesen, ed]

A wave of organizing ensued. Public employees around the world were inspired by the struggle of the Memphis sanitation workers. In the U.S., postal workers successfully struck against the Federal law that prohibited them from striking, overturning the law in the process and winning full reinstatement for all strikers without penalty, recognition for their Union and a contract with pay raises. This victory inspired others, and within a decade AFSCME had more than tripled in size. But outside the public sector, without the backing of the AFL-CIO leadership, the mass organization of the South did not occur.

Tragically, Jerry Wurf died in 1981 at the early age of 62. Bill Lucy, the Memphis-born organizer who was the man on the spot in 1968, was now Secretary-Treasurer of the International Union and was widely expected to succeed him; but that’s not the way things went.

Here’s how JET Magazine reported it on January 28th 1982:

“Confidential: The national AFL-CIO union that Dr Martin L KIng gave his life to help has spurned a Black man as its president. When President Jerry Wurf of the State, County and Municipal Employees died in mid-December, next in line was Secretary-Treasurer William Lucy, one of the highest Blacks in the labor movement. But in a feverish last-minute maneuver, White members drafted outsider Gerald W. McEntee, a Philadelphia regional director, who out polled Lucy 483,000 to 449,911 in a bitter racial confrontation. Dr King was killed in Memphis while trying to organize sanitation workers, a segment of the million-member union…”

Bill Lucy has remained an important figure in the labor movement, not only as AFSCME’s Secretary-Treasurer but as a founder and most visible leader of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists from 1972 to today. He was also a founder in 1984 of the Free South Africa Movement. But Lucy never again challenged McEntee for the Presidency of AFSCME. No doubt this was done in the name of unity, and because McEntee had the power of incumbency: but this unity has come at a heavy price. Whatever political differences continued to exist between them were kept behind closed doors, never to be allowed to filter down to the membership. AFSCME Conventions saw less and less debate and more and more time dedicated to promoting the Democrats (McEntee is a member of the Democratic National Committee). Meanwhile AFSCME membership, which was 1.3 million in the mid-80’s has only grown to its present 1.4 million (usually cited as 1.6 million but true only if retirees are included) as a result of enormous efforts, millions of dollars spent on organizing – and the Clinton-era prison building binge.

Divisions at the Top

Two years ago, some of the differences within the AFSCME International Executive Board surfaced in a letter from seven International VP’s, sharply criticizing McEntee for spending Union money in attack ads against Barack Obama (McEntee favored Hilary Clinton but the International Executive Board had not considered or approved negative ads against any Democratic Party candidate). The letter was leaked to Time Magazine which is how many activists found out about its existence. But at the Convention a few months afterward, no mention was made of it. The differences were papered over once again in a nauseating show of pro-Democratic Party unity.

So when, in the run up to the 2010 Convention, it became apparent that Lucy was retiring and that there would be a contest between his preferred successor – ironically a white man, Danny Donohue, a former rank and file member and the elected leader of AFSCME’s biggest affiliate, CSEA (New York State) – and McEntee’s long-time personal assistant Lee Saunders, an African-American with no history of running for elective office – some rank-and-filers hoped that the differences would at last began to break out into the open. This happened, but the two sides campaigned in a way that made their differences (though real) seem hard to identify; the divisions emerged in a very uneven way.

For example, McEntee’s undemocratic way of running the Convention – at once glitzy and bullying, at times almost thuggish in his manner – never evinced much protest before, certainly not from anyone on the International Executive Board. But his tangibly churlish attitude to the retirement speech from Bill Lucy, including cutting off the time allotted to tributes to this 57 year veteran of our Union and his unconcealed determination to see his own candidate win, created in response massive demonstrations of anger, both organized and spontaneous, from the Convention floor.

These began with protests against his staff calling Convention Center security against Donohue supporters passing out literature on Monday morning, to further protests against his use of Lee Saunders’ campaign color – yellow, a curious choice in terms of Labor history – on Tuesday morning’s Convention newsletter, to angry and poorly answered questions about the use of what amounts to a proxy voting system in which many delegates had already signed over their votes to the leader of their Local delegation. The nominating process on Tuesday afternoon which took over two hours to complete – for only two vacant positions and a total of five nominees – because the Convention floor erupted with the fury of two thousand delegates protesting a series of outrages against the electoral process.

For example, during the nominations, McEntee at one point vacated the chair to go down on the floor, wearing a yellow Saunders T-shirt to nominate his favorite. He went way over the five minutes allotted to him and this was allowed by the temporary chairperson. The same for almost all of the flowery, professionally crafted speeches seconding the Saunders nomination. The President of the Union then resumed the chair, astonishingly still wearing the yellow T-shirt bearing the name of his preferred candidate, and continued wearing this shirt as he took the nominations for the other candidates. This sparked a prolonged roar of protest from Danny Donohue’s supporters, but President McEntee continued to wear his preferred candidate’s election material as he conducted the rest of the nominations. It is not easy to convey the impression that this explosion of disunity left on all present. AFSCME conventions will never be the same again.

The Saunders campaign went into the election with all the advantages of the support of the International’s appointed staff – and dark rumors of threats to cut off organizational support from those District Councils that need them the most if they voted the wrong way – and the expectation that they would win by a margin of 200,000 votes (out of the 1.3 million represented at the Convention). Donohue’s supporters had to remind delegates that the vote was by secret ballot conducted by the American Arbitration Association and that delegates who had signed over their votes to their Local leadership could rescind that permission simply by showing up first at the polls – at 6am on Thursday morning.

When the votes were counted, Saunders won – but only by 3,700 votes, less than half of one percent of the total number cast. This was greater than the number of challenged ballots and no election protest was filed, but that evening, supporters from both sides agreed that McEntee’s repellent behavior from the platform was mainly to blame for the narrowness of this victory. The Donohue camp has made it clear that they will be running again – probably for the Presidency as well as the Secretary-Treasurer position when they both come up for re-election in 2012.

What were the issues, and what will they be in 2012?

Overshadowing the too-diplomatically defined differences between the candidates – such as Saunders’ emphasis on selecting where to spend organizing dollars, Donohue’s emphasis on the need of the International Union to devote its attention and resources to the struggles we are experiencing in the field (implying some redistribution of dues back to Locals and Councils) – and the question of continuing to support any candidate the Democrats serve up or as implied by the Donohue campaign, supporting Republicans or (possibly) independents where circumstances so indicate – lie the looming budget-driven battles against layoffs, furloughs and other pay cuts, and the even bigger fights that will develop as contracts have to be negotiated in the post-Crash of 2008 world.

Behind all this is the question of Union democracy. McEntee has been in power as the President of our union since 1981 and many members believe he has gotten far, far too used to it. This is what led to the behavior that nearly cost Lee Saunders, his personal assistant, never previously elected to any post, the election for Secretary-Treasurer.

We need democracy in a working class organization so that we can openly discuss and debate the way forward, to figure out at all levels of the Union, not just in staff-controlled and scripted “workshops,” how to mobilize workers in defense of their class. At this Convention as at others in the past, members and allies of Socialist Alternative moved resolutions calling for the rich to have to pay for their crisis, and for unions to dump the Democrats and campaign for candidates that genuinely support us.

Democratic and accountable structures give workers control of their own organizations, and this can be crucial in contract battles or other struggles. The more members are involved, the better chance workers have of winning. As the public sector comes further under attack, the mobilization of the ranks will determine whether we win or lose. Unions need a fighting strategy of mass demonstrations, pickets, community outreach and when necessary, strikes. We need to know who are friends are and who are enemies are. Our friends are the ordinary people who use the services provided by the public sector: the students, the families with child care, the welfare recipients, the patients. The politicians cutting our services are not our friends, and we need to replace them with independent candidates who take a firm stance against budget cuts.


Resolution #51: Resolution to Solve Budget Crises Across the United States, and save the Middle Class – (see below) in effect a “tax the rich” resolution – was agreed to by the Union leadership even before the Convention got under way, and was therefore recommended by the Economic Affairs Committee to the full body for adoption. A similar resolution was opposed by the leadership at the Illinois State Council (Council 31) Convention last October, but was carried overwhelmingly by the delegates at that convention despite this opposition. Since that time, AFSCME in Oregon joined the successful campaign for a law to raise taxes on wealthier households and this is clearly a response to workers’ anger against the rich and the super-rich. Three of our four delegates spoke in favor of it from the floor and it was carried with only token opposition.

The following day of the Convention a resolution was moved which dealt with the unfinished business of health care reform. Resolution #29, Reforming Health Care Reform, focused on the shortcomings of the Health Care Reform Act of 2010 and how to fix them. This included pointing out that since coverage for undocumented immigrant workers was excluded from this Federal law, the cost of providing that care will fall on public health systems (which are all funded out of State and Local taxes).

This resolution was supported by the leadership. But a member of the “Conservatives in AFSCME Caucus” – a caucus of right-wing, anti-tax activists that amazingly, has been given official status by the International Union – moved an amendment to delete the language that AFSCME supports a truly universal health care system “that includes the right for undocumented immigrants to be eligible for health care coverage”. This amendment was correctly rejected by the Resolutions Committee as unfriendly, and when it went for a vote it was defeated, but the conservatives continued to propose several more amendments that were all basically the same – and which should have been ruled out of order for that reason, but were not. In this way these Right-wingers used the tactic of the wedge issue, as they invariably do, re-framing the debate so that it was no longer about universal health care but became a debate about “using our tax dollars to pay for those illegal immigrants” – disregarding the fact that this was really about shifting costs which will happen anyway from the State and Local tax burden to the Federal government. No-one in the leadership ever presented this or any other political argument against this vicious and emotional tactic, instead the platform repeated the bureaucratic formula “We do not regard this amendment as friendly” as if that alone would be enough to persuade the assembled delegates. It was left up to a few speakers from the floor to oppose the amendments and the amendments all fell – but in the end, so did the resolution itself. By the time it came up for a vote, all that had really been heard was this incomplete discussion about undocumented immigrants, it was as if the delegates had lost sight of the resolution as a whole and it went down to defeat, both on a voice vote and then a standing vote. When a roll call was called for, it did not get enough support, largely because the platform had claimed that a roll call vote takes up to three hours to conduct.

Resolution #50, Independent Candidates, was called the following day. It was opposed by the Union leadership on the basis that putting forward a general policy of dumping the Democrats would limit the freedom of State and local affiliates to decide where to put their candidate endorsements – and our money. However, the Political Action Committee went so far as to attach the language of one of its resolves to Resolution 38, AFSCME will hold Politicians Accountable. This is the language that was used, except that a member of the Conservative Caucus who was on this leadership-appointed committee successfully moved to remove the words “rather than taxing the rich”:

That this Union will stop funding Democrats and Republicans who scapegoat public employees, whether by undermining services through layoffs and furlough days, applauding the firing of public school teachers while creating incentives to privatize education, or by attacking our pensions after decades of “borrowing” from our pension funds rather than taxing the rich.”

“Applauding the firing of public school teachers while creating incentives to privatize education” was of course aimed at Barack Obama and his Secretary of Education. But the Resolution to which it was attached, goes no further than to say that AFSCME should oppose candidates who lied to us and voted against our interests, such as Blanche Lincoln in Nebraska, in the Democratic primaries.

Past Conventions have been addressed by Presidents, Senators, Mayors and Congressmen, and Democratic hopefuls from all over the place. This was the first Convention of the nine that this writer has attended, at which not one single elected official was an invited speaker. The keynote speakers in the session of the Convention devoted to electoral action were millionaire TV anchor, Democratic Party operative and Clinton White House alumnus Donna Brazile, and MSNBC and talk radio liberal Ed Schultz. Neither of these individuals has a voting record to defend, but each spent 45 minutes or more exhorting the assembled delegates to stick with the Democrats in the upcoming elections, which were, with no apparent sense of irony or repetition, referred to as “the most important elections in history.”

Criticizing Resolution #38, AFSCME will hold Politicians Accountable as not going far enough, this delegate pointed out the hypocrisy of Brazile and her political mentor Bill Clinton, who never did anything to allow union recognition when he was Governor of Arkansas – a right-to-work State – who opposed the Union’s efforts to dump Blanche Lincoln, and whose free trade policies, particularly in regards to China, have destroyed millions of jobs in the U.S. Many, possibly most delegates applauded this.

In speaking to Resolution #50, Independent Candidates, this delegate pointed out the way in which the Union’s relationship with the Democrats has stifled debate within our own union, because resolutions seem to be recommended more for their acceptability to the Democratic Party than because they make sense in terms of our own needs as workers and Union members; and that this focus on the two-party system has gone so far as to the development of a Conservative Caucus which resembles the Tea Party activists in terms of its politics, and which was allowed to derail our debate on health care by using undocumented workers as a wedge against the principle of universal health care.

Since that speech, a number of delegates have expressed interest in forming a caucus, provisionally to be called the Progressive Caucus, in order to defend the ideas that have built the union from those of the far Right. International staff that we’ve spoken to have agreed that we can apply for the same official status that the Conservative Caucus gets – which means space at future Conventions, at least.

This caucus needs to develop a program around which we can unite and organize. Minimally this means defending the social gains of the union movement – from equality in matters of race, gender, disability and sexuality to the principle of public ownership in the provision of government services, beginning with education which is being targeted for privatization. It will also mean putting forward the arguments for progressive taxation, turning back the three-decade “tax revolt” by pointing to the way in which this has allowed the rich and the super-rich and corporations to get away without paying taxes, putting almost the entire tax burden on working class people.

#51 Resolution to Solve Budget Crises Across the United States and save the Middle Class

Whereas: Nearly every state in the United States is claiming to have a massive budget crises, caused by the unregulated financial practices and colossal greed of the Ruling Class on Wall Street, and the refusal of the wealthy to pay their fair share in taxes, and

Whereas: All public sector jobs and services are under attack, while salaries and benefits for the poor and working class continue to shrink as the incomes and investment portfolios of the rich continue to balloon, and

Whereas: A February 2009 Rasmuessen report shows that 51% of voters in America believe that a tax increase on those earning over $250,000 a year would be good for the economy,
and this

Whereas: Research has shown that a marginal tax increase on the rich has very little effect on residency choices, and

Whereas: Voters in New Jersey oppose Gov Christie’s $1 BN tax cut for the rich (households with incomes above $400,000 a year) by a 2 – 1 margin, and 35,000 New Jerseyans rallied against those cuts in Trenton on May 25th, and

Whereas: The State of Oregon has chosen to trail blaze ahead of the rest of the nation and pass Measure 66 and Measure 67, to raise the minimum corporate income tax, and raise the tax rate on household incomes over $250,000 a year to fund schools and other public services, and protect public sector jobs,

Therefore Be It Resolved: That A.F.S.C.M.E. will fight to implement Measures to tax the rich in every state in the United States, so that jobs and services by and for Americans will be saved, so that the Middle Class can be saved, so that the unequal distribution of wealth in this country can finally begin to be addressed.

Pauline Turlow, Delegate,
Stephen Edwards, President and Delegate,
Bunnie Johnson, Delegate
Elijah Edwards, Delegate
Local 2858, Council 31, Chicago, IL


WHEREAS: The campaign to elect President Obama inspired millions to actively participate in politics, eager to engage in the political process and to make their voices heard; and

WHEREAS: Many who supported this campaign believed the Democrats would strengthen workers’ rights through the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), institute universal public health care, support amnesty for undocumented immigrants and equality for the LGBT community, and end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and

WHEREAS: The policy of this International Union, as expressed in Resolution #95 passed at the 38th International Convention in San Francisco in 2008, is as follows:

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED: That this union demand the following program from our elected officials:

  • No handouts to the banks and corporations who are responsible for creating this chaos. When businesses have to be “rescued” in order to save workers’ livelihoods, this should be done by taking them into public ownership under democratic control.
  • A moratorium on home foreclosures. Quality housing for all, including grants to upgrade existing homes, communities and public transportation, rather than feeding the profits of developers through suburban sprawl.
  • A massive program of public works, administered with democratic control at a local level, with community and union involvement. This should create jobs at union rates of pay for all those who are out of work or under-employed. It should rebuild the infrastructure, building and renovating schools, hospitals, transportation, sanitation and workplaces so that everyone has access to a living wage and the economy can be rebuilt”.

AND WHEREAS: None of this has happened. Soon after that Resolution was passed, Wall Street speculators plunged our economy into the deepest recession since 1929 and were rewarded with a $14 Trillion taxpayer-funded bailout, without any of the controls that were correctly called for by this Union and others. Unemployment, business failures and home foreclosures remain at record levels because the money that should have gone to stimulate the economy was squandered on Wall Street and its wasteful speculation. Meanwhile at the State level, Democrats have led the charge to slash budgets and attack our jobs and pensions; and

WHEREAS: The majority of the country wants a radical change from the two corporate parties, but without a movement to challenge them from a working-class perspective, the right-wing Tea Party movement has grabbed the headlines while too many in the Labor movement imagine they can “avenge” attacks from the Democrats by voting Republican this November;

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED: That this International Union endorse and support pro-worker, independent candidates such as Rich Whitney in Illinois (, who would fix the State budget with a Financial Transactions Tax on speculative trading – which exceeds $1 quadrillion, or one thousand trillion dollars a year in the two main Chicago exchanges alone; Jill Stein in Massachusetts (, a physician who continues to campaign for universal, single payer health care and for government to “fully fund K through 12 education in every year, in every budget, for every student;” and labor journalist Dan LaBotz in Ohio (, who declares: “Working people make the country run. And working people – not the banks, corporations, and politicians – should run the country,”

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED: That this Union will stop funding Democrats and Republicans who scapegoat public employees, whether by undermining services through layoffs and furlough days, applauding the firing of public school teachers while creating incentives to privatize education, or by attacking our pensions after decades of “borrowing” from our pension funds rather than taxing the rich, and

BE IT FINALLY RESOLVED: That we should only put our money and our efforts behind independent candidates who stand unequivocally for working peoples’ interests, and start campaigning for a new political party that will fight to defend the interests of working people and against big business and the rich.

Pauline Turlow, Delegate,
Stephen Edwards, President and Delegate,
Bunnie Johnson, Delegate
Elijah Edwards, Delegate
Local 2858, Council 31, Chicago, IL

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