In an election that marked the changing of the guard at one of the nation’s biggest and most politically active unions, American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees convention delegates elected Lee Saunders as the union’s new president, and running mate Laura Reyes to succeed Saunders as secretary-treasurer.
Saunders, a Cleveland native, won 54 percent of the vote, from delegates representing 683,628 members, to 46 percent for New Yorker Danny Donohue, from delegates representing 582,358 members. Vote totals were announced late on June 21.
Saunders will be only the fourth president of the 1.6 million-member union, and its first African-American president. Reyes, who defeated fellow Californian Alice Goff, 52.3 -47.7 percent, will be the union’s first female secretary-treasurer.
Saunders succeeds Gerald McEntee, who retired after 31 years as president. McEntee backed Saunders.
The race between Saunders and Donohue, an international vice president and president of a big New York AFSCME local, featured a debate over how to meet the GOP-radical right challenge to workers, especially public workers. Saunders favored what some said was a more conciliatory approach of reaching out to Republicans than did his opponent, Donahue.
The 2010 elections swept anti-worker governors and lawmakers into office, including Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker and Ohio’s Gov. John Kasich. Both of them went on the attack against collective bargaining rights with Walker surviving a recall election and Kasich seeing his law go down to defeat at the polls.
In the end, however, the two sides said their differences were small and they put up a strong united front.
“We had a vigorous and energetic campaign, but now the union will pull together to win victories for working families and our members all across this great country,” Saunders said after the election.
“We know Wall Street and their allies are engaged in an all-out assault against our members and the services we provide. They know AFSCME stands in the way of their efforts to destroy the middle class.
“We are united in our commitment to stand up for the men and women who care for America’s children, nurse the sick, plow our streets, collect the household trash and guard our prisons. Our members are a cross-section of America, not some elite group as our opponents try to claim. We are energized and ready for the battles ahead.”
AFSCME’s importance in politics was emphasized by the fact that U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden flew out to the convention in Los Angeles to personally address the 5,000 delegates.
“You provide the safe neighborhoods, you provide the good schools, you provide the school lunches, you provide the day care centers, you provide the hospitals, you provide the roads, you provide the ability of people to live a decent middle-class life. We owe you!” Biden declared.
Photo: Biden greets workers at a machining plant. Madalyn Ruggiero/AP