With 1.6 million members, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) is one of the largest unions in the AFL-CIO. Mostly representing workers in local and state government and in the health-care industry, AFSCME is one of the few unions to have continually increased its membership since its inception. Under the leadership of Gerald McEntee, AFSCME has been instrumental in transforming labor into a progressive outfit.
AFSCME was founded in 1936. During the late 1930s and 40s, its membership grew to more than 50,000 people and it lobbied primarily for civil-service laws based on merit. In the 1950s, AFSCME began to shift its priorities toward collective bargaining, which was illegal for the vast majority of public employees.
During this period of development, Jerry Wurf emerged as the leader to guide the union to prominence and influence. From 1947 to 1964, Wurf worked as an organizer for the AFSCME local, District Council 37, in New York City and was able to increase its membership from 1,000 to 38,000. This dramatic rise was due to Wurf’s push to legalize collective bargaining for public employees. In 1958, his campaign resulted in Mayor Robert Wagner recognizing collective bargaining as a right for public employees. Wagner’s Executive Order 49 became the model for President Kennedy’s 1962 Order granting organizing rights to a wide range of federal employees.
Wurf became AFSCME’s President in 1964, at which time the union had 220,000 members. By the time Wurf died in 1981, AFSCME’s membership had grown to approximately 1 million. Wurf had developed the union into one of the most powerful in America and had also steered it politically leftward with his fierce criticism of the Vietnam War. It was Gerald McEntee, however, who instituted AFSCME’s definitive shift towards progressivism when he succeeded Wurf as the union’s President. McEntee aligned himself with the most powerful players in the New Labor movement: John Sweeney, Andrew Stern, and Steven Rosenthal (co-founder of America Coming Together, which represented AFSCME in the Government Union wing of the Shadow Party).
In 1995, the year of Sweeney’s election as AFL CIO President, McEntee became chairman of the AFL-CIO’s political committee and helped to guide the liberal federation into a new era of progressive labor. McEntee also employed Paul Booth — radical union activist, former New Leftist, former national secretary of the Students for a Democratic Society, and co-founder of the Midwest Academy — as his assistant. Booth, who had previously trained radicals to infiltrate the labor movement, was now able to inundate a much vaster labor arena, heading the AFL-CIO’s “Union Summer” training camp, a 10-week educational internship where participants are indoctrinated in radical ideology, developing “skills useful for union organizing drives and other campaigns for workers’ rights and social justice.” (Today, Booth is McEntee’s executive assistant at AFSCME.)
From his position of power, McEntee has ensured AFSCME’s absolute support for the Democratic Party as well as its partnership with America Votes. Between 1990 and 2010, AFSCME alone donated $42 million — 98 percent to Democrats — and it remains the leading union contributor to the Party.
Many questions have surrounded McEntee’s role in funneling such vast sums of money into political causes. During the Bill Clinton administration, McEntee was implicated in Teamstergate, an illegal funding operation in which at least $1 million was laundered by Project Vote, Citizen Action, the National Council of Senior Citizens, Teamsters for a Corruption-Free Union, the AFL-CIO, and the Democratic Party itself.
In order to increase its membership, AFSCME has also waged numerous card-check campaigns and found other ways of gaining membership through backroom deals and stealth strategies. In the state of Washington, for example, AFSCME helped the Democrats gain full control of the legislature in 2002. Democrats, in turn, lifted collective bargaining restrictions from state employees and, within three years, unions were able to double their membership by targeting government workers. With the huge increase in dues, moreover, the unions doubled their political donations to the Democratic Party.
During the 2010 election-campaign season, AFSCME made $2.2 million in political contributions, with only $6,000, or 0.3 percent, going to Republicans; recipients of AFSCME’s donations included 339 House and Senate Democrats, and only 3 Republicans.