Gerald W. McEntee, Politically Powerful Union Leader, Dies at 87

By | July 12, 2022

Gerald W. McEntee, longtime president of one of the largest public trade unions in the country, died Sunday at his home in Naples, Fla. He is 87 years old.

His death was confirmed by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which he headed from 1981 to 2012.

As union president, he helped expand its active membership from about 1 million to over 1.2 million at its peak while leading major battles against the privatization of government programs.

But perhaps he is best known for the increasing influence of the labor movement in electoral politics during the largely Republican rule, as Washington became increasingly hostile to unions.

“He was an important figure in the repositioning of the union in politics,” said Joseph McCartin, a labor historian at Georgetown University who studies public sector unions. “I think his calling card more than anything is that he started using the political power of the union to carry out things that at an earlier time the union may have been on strikes to be precise.”

After becoming president, Mr. McEntee, the union began spending heavily on races in the state legislature, considering that legislators are important both for funding public services and for once-a-decade redistricting that helps define control. in Congress.

Then, during the 1992 presidential campaign, Mr. McEntee urged the international union executive board to endorse Bill Clinton, then governor of Arkansas, who was considered by many union officials to be less hardworking than to rival Democratic candidates, including Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa.

Formal endorsement appears to come in late winter or early spring, but the union had signaled its support a few weeks before, when many Democratic voters and part of the party’s establishment were still skeptical. also to Mr. Clinton. The union’s support has helped Mr. Clinton present himself as an acceptable nominee within the party that could end 12 years of Republican control of the presidency.

“Harkin was a really good labor friend – I don’t know how anyone could have been a better labor friend,” recalled Linda Canan Stephens, who worked in the union’s political department at the time. “But McEntee pushed it – you have to win. That is the reality of the situation. ”

Shortly after supporting John J. Sweeney to become president of the AFL-CIO in 1995, Mr. McEntee of the federation’s political committee, which effectively formalized his role as Democratic kingmaker. Steve Rosenthal, the committee’s top staffer at the time, remembered him as a rugged but supportive boss dedicated to expanding the labor role in federal elections.

One of Mr. Rosenthal’s early presentations to Mr. McEntee has featured a plan to create a political mobilization tool, including organizers and phone-banking, that will work throughout the year, not just in the months before Election Day.

As Mr. Rosenthal recalled: “When I finished, he said, ‘Very clever – this is the smartest thing I have ever heard. And every five or six years, someone comes in with the same plan. I tell him how good it is, and if they can figure out how to fund it throughout the year, do it. ‘”

However, Mr. acted aggressively. McEntee to make AFL funds available for political campaigns: more than $ 30 million in election cycles in 1996 and 1998 and more than $ 40 million in 2000.

“That was a far bigger program than the AFL has ever run, and we’ve had a huge amount of success” Mr. Rosenthal said, pointing to the successes of Mr. Clinton and down-ballot candidates in 1996 and those pickup for Democrats during the 1998 midterm elections, not uncommon for a party that controls the White House. “He drove that train.”

During the 2000 presidential cycle, Mr. McEntee used his perch over the AFL political committee to help gain the endorsement of Vice President Al Gore, who was then facing intense challenge from former Senator Bill Bradley for the Democratic presidential nomination. The AFL will rarely endorse a candidate during a controversial Democratic primary, but Mr. McEntee believes it is important to unite the labor movement behind Mr. Gore.

“Jerry has a vision that you should be with the people you’re with, and try and be with them early, and they’ll remember, they’ll be grateful for it,” said Steve Elmendorf, who has worked closely with Mr. McEntee in the 1990s as a top aide to Rep. Richard Gephardt, Democrat of Missouri.

Not all bets on Mr. politics. McEntee succeeded. In late 2003, he helped secure the AFSCME endorsement of Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont, for the Democratic presidential nomination. Dr. Dean was also endorsed by the powerful Service Employees International Union, but his campaign ran aground shortly after his third place finish in the 2004 Iowa caucuses.

However, Democratic operatives said the endorsement reflects Mr. McEntee’s philosophy that labor needs to take greater political risk in order to stay relevant. “He understood we had to be brave,” Mr. Rosenthal said. “I think the Dean thing is an example of that.”

Gerald William McEntee was born in Jan. 11, 1935, in Philadelphia to William and Mary Josephine (Creed) McEntee. Her father was a sanitation truck driver for the city who helped organize co-workers.

Mr. McEntee graduated from La Salle University in Philadelphia in 1956. After serving briefly in the Army, he worked monitoring traffic volume at intersections for the Philadelphia Bureau of Traffic Engineering, at which time he joined AFSCME.

He is survived by his wife, Barbara (Rochford) McEntee; his daughters, Patricia Gehlen, Kathleen Hammock and Kelly Hamlin; his sister, Mary Casale; 10 grandchildren; and five great -grandchildren.

Within a few months of joining AFSCME, Mr. McEntee became a staff member of the union’s Philadelphia local council. In 1970, Pennsylvania passed legislation allowing state employees to bargain together, and Mr. McEntee to encourage them to join AFSCME.

In 1973, he became the top staff of the AFSCME council representing the entire state; in that post he helped negotiate a contract that included generous health insurance and prescription drug benefits. When the state tried to withdraw from the agreement a few years later, Mr. McEntee led a strike, one of the largest at that point in U.S. history involving public employees. The two sides reconciled within a few days.

Mr. McEntee was elected to replace longtime AFSCME leader Jerry Wurf after his death in December 1981; he won a full term as president in 1984. According to the union, Mr. McEntee made gender pay equity a priority in contract bargaining in the 1980s.

Throughout his more than 30 -year tenure, Mr. McEntee has played a leading role resisting government cuts and privatization sought by Republican officials and some moderate Democrats. He helped lead a successful campaign to defeat President George W. Bush’s proposal to partially privatize Social Security in 2005.

In 2011, when Wisconsin’s newly elected governor, Scott Walker, began to restore collective bargaining rights for public employees in that state, Mr. McEntee to lead the opposition, which includes large -scale protests in the state capital.

“Jerry led the workers’ response to the attack in Wisconsin, ”said Larry Cohen, president of Communications Workers of America at the time, and added,“ He’s almost like a Paul Revere saying, ‘ If it’s not a wake-up call for all of us, what is it? ‘”

Partly as a result of that alarm, Mr. Cohen said, his own union began holding monthly town hall meetings involving thousands of store managers.

The results of these efforts have been mixed. Mr. Walker was more successful in suppressing settlement rights in Wisconsin, and Republican governors and lawmakers eventually launched the same for public employees in neighboring states, such as Michigan. In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that government employees in any state could opt out of joining a union or paying a union fee, eliminating mandatory fees in more than 20 states. The decision led to a reduction in union budgets.

But unions eliminated a Wisconsin-style rollback of collective bargaining rights in Ohio through a ballot measure in 2011, and such counter-mobilization of labor appears to be building momentum, creating a wave of more aggressive labor activism in the latter part of the decade, especially among teachers. .

“They weren’t fully prepared for the kind of militant pushback that was coming with Walker and the others,” Mr. McCartin, the historian, said. “To McEntee’s credit, he dug in once it became clear how that aggression was going on.”


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