Labor unions face an extremely daunting political landscape in this year’s elections, which explains why veteran AFSCME president Jerry McEntee is working overtime on multiple fronts to mobilize his troops to get out the labor vote.
To ensure that Democrats keep control of the House and the Senate, McEntee’s 1.6 million member union has boosted its spending by 25 percent from 2006, to a hefty $50 million this time around.
AFSCME has some 250 staff currently working in the field and expects that number to grow to 300 by Election Day. McEntee says that about 75 percent of the group’s budget will be devoted to get-out-the-vote operations, with the rest going chiefly to advertising.
McEntee, 75, pulls no punches in regard to this year’s challenges: unemployment is stuck at around 9.5 percent, and Democrats are in danger of losing the House and perhaps even the Senate.
“A lot of our people are asking, ‘Why should we be enthusiastic?’ It’s still tough to build enthusiasm,” says McEntee. But McEntee, who has been at the helm of AFSCME for almost three decades, quickly adds that “people don’t want to go back to the world” of GOP leadership. “This is the race of our lives.”
Even though Congress and the Obama administration haven’t delivered on labor’s top priority — making it easier for workers to unionize workplaces — McEntee stresses that the Obama administration has registered significant accomplishments: “He’s had real success with health care as far as we’re concerned.”
McEntee’s clout in the labor movement extends well beyond AFSCME. Since 1995 he has chaired the AFL-CIO’s political committee, which this year is focusing heavily on the union’s coordinated national program with the SEIU to educate and mobilize some 17 million union voters.
McEntee also chairs Working America, a key unit of the AFL-CIO, which will pour another $25 million in soft money into mobilizing both nonunion workers and about three million AFL-CIO members who do not have collective bargaining relationships with their employers. “They have a great method of targeting and turning out nonunion members,” he said.
McEntee began his labor career in the late 1950s as an organizer in Philadelphia. His affinity for the labor movement comes naturally: His father was an AFSCME union leader in Pennsylvania.