Gerald W. McEntee, president of one of the nation’s largest unions, said the labor movement was damaged when the FBI linked a competing union to Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich’s effort to sell Illinois’ U.S. Senate seat and it hurts labor’s push to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, unions’ big legislative priority.
“I don’t think it’s helped, let me say that on the record. I don’t think it’s helped,” Mr. McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, told editors and reporters at The Washington Times, referring to allegations that the Service Employees International Union was linked to Mr. Blagojevich’s moves in Illinois. “It sure … is a shame it happened.”
Mr. McEntee said labor must guard against overreaching and should avoid warring with other Democratic-leaning groups - “to turn the other cheek on this and be more interested in the bigger picture,” he said - but he also said unions paid their dues by supporting Democrats and President-elect Barack Obama in this year’s election.
He said they expect that effort to be rewarded with action.
“The payback would be Employee Free Choice Act - that would be a vehicle to strengthen and build the American labor movement and the middle class,” he said. “It’s the condition of the country, it’s health care, it’s the Employee Free Choice Act, it’s some kind of effort made in protection of their pensions. These are big and major items.”
Mr. McEntee said his members understand the limits of the Senate, with its filibuster rules that the minority Republicans can use to block legislation, but said unions at least want to see a full-throttle effort.
“I think our people have to be able to see that the Democrats, including Obama, are fighting … for these kinds of things and not backing off or backing away.”
Mr. McEntee has been president of the 1.6-million-member AFSCME since 1981, and also is vice president of the AFL-CIO and chairman of its Political Education Committee. AFSCME mainly represents health care, and state and local government workers.
They have competed with SEIU over organizing some workers in Illinois, and Mr. McEntee was emphatic that his union has no relationship with Mr. Blagojevich, who was arrested and charged with trying to barter the Senate seat left vacant when Mr. Obama won the presidency.
“We at AFSCME don’t know a whole lot about it, we don’t have any personal or impersonal relationship with the governor. We are constantly in trouble and battle, battle state, with the governor of Illinois,” he said.
“I think it’s a shame what is happening in Illinois. I think it does some damage to Democrats. I think it’s kind of, it’s sort of harmful to Obama in that it takes away from what gives every appearance, and I think is, the best transition in power I’ve ever seen.”
The FBI affidavit filed with the criminal complaint against Mr. Blagojevich said the governor “met with SEIU Official to discuss the vacant Senate seat.” The SEIU official is mentioned 13 times in the affidavit.
Already, pro-business groups are using the SEIU-Blagojevich link to try to hurt unions’ efforts to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, also called card check, which would allow unions to be organized if a majority of potential union members signed cards supporting the effort.
Opponents object to the public nature of the process, arguing unions should be organized only by secret ballot.
The bill was blocked by Senate filibuster in the current Congress.
An SEIU spokeswoman challenged the ads, calling them “smear campaigns,” and said their union won’t get into a back-and-forth over the affidavit and will remain focused on working on health care and jobs.
“We would invite AFSCME and Gerald McEntee to work with us to be part of the solutions here to help working families,” said Michelle Ringuette.
Mr. McEntee said unions themselves have not done a good job of educating voters about the Employee Free Choice Act and about unions’ importance to the middle class overall.
“It’s a story that bears better telling and we would be better off if we told it in a better, more explicit kind of way,” he said, adding that part of the problem is unions have been too eager for fights in the past rather than looking at the broader political picture.
“We could place ourselves as a union and as a labor movement in a position where all we do is throw grenades from the left. We’ve done that before,” he said. “Generally speaking, those grenades have blown up in our face, right? And you should learn after those kinds of things happen.”
Mr. McEntee said his union has told Mr. Obama’s team that it would like to see any stimulus spending bill include at least $100 billion in aid for state and local governments, split between the next two years.
His union endorsed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic primary race but worked hard for Mr. Obama once he secured the nomination, he said.
He detailed thousands of staff and volunteers, millions of phone calls and hundreds of thousands of door-to-door visits on Mr. Obama’s behalf, and said the efforts had an effect on some union members who were amenable to Mrs. Clinton but reluctant at first to support Mr. Obama because of his race.
“When you looked at numbers originally, they were bad numbers for Obama. They were bad numbers. But we were able to go out and talk to those kinds of people, educate those people,” he said.
He said his own membership is about 27 percent Republican. He said support for card check in his union runs in the “high 60s.”