AFSCME Leadership Fight Will Shape Public Employee Union

Unions are salivating at the opportunity to take down their arch-nemesis, Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker.

Last year, Walker curtailed the collective bargaining power of Wisconsin’s public-sector employees and forced them to contribute more to their budget-busting health plans, all an effort to stem the tide of red ink swamping the state.

The results have been impressive: Once weighed down by a $3.6 billion deficit, Walker’s office now projects “a surplus for the first time in over 15 years.”

But unions never forgave Walker and have now collected enough signatures to force a recall election this summer. And it looks like Walker is in for the fight of his life.

A recent Public Policy Polling survey finds Wisconsin voters evenly split on the recall, 49 percent to 49 percent, while Walker’s approval rating stands at an alarming 47 percent.

But that won’t be the only hotly-contested election this summer. There is an immensely significant power struggle brewing at the highest echelons of the 1.6 million-member American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, one of the largest and most powerful labor organizations in the country.

Danny Donohue, president of the New York State Civil Service Employees Association, and union Secretary-Treasurer Lee Saunders are competing to succeed retiring AFSCME President Gerry McEntee. At stake: The future of AFSCME’s political giving.

AFSCME has long been a major contributor to Democrats, and is expected to spend upwards of $100 million in the 2012 election cycle alone. But Donohue is promising to refocus the union’s political cash more on state and local races.

“We may still spend the overall dollars, but we may not spend them where we are spending them now,” Donohue told the Huffington Post.

“Would we cut off the money to national elections? No. Would we maybe redirect some of it? That’s a very distinct possibility,” Donohue elaborates in a separate interview with the Hill. “Should we be using some of the money we would just give to the parties and use it to try to activate our members, to get more members involved in their union and in their fight? … The one thing we have is people that can vote.”

Even if Walker goes down in the coming recall election, unions will have been forced to spend millions on the fight. Clearly, Donohue has in mind a strategy aimed at avoiding such costly battles in the future by energizing rank-and-file union members to concentrate on state and local races, thereby preventing politicians like Walker from coming to power in the first place.

But my Competitive Enterprise Institute colleague Ivan Osorio, labor expert and author of “The Battle for New England” (Labor Watch, March 2012), thinks that union money is headed that way anyway, whether Donohue wins or not:

“Whatever changes result following the change in AFSCME’s leadership are bound to be minor,” says Osorio. “One candidate says he wants to shift more resources to state politics, yet that’s a shift that is occurring already.

“Across the nation, state and local elected officials — of both parties — who face large budget deficits are working hard to bring their jurisdictions’ finances under control. Government employee unions, led by AFSCME, have been doing everything in their power to undermine those efforts.”

The truth is Donohue’s proposed strategy is one that has already been forced on unions by courageous politicians like Walker who have taken the fight to the state and local levels, compelling union leaders to divert energy and resources away from Barack Obama and the national Democrat Party machine.

In that sense, no matter how his recall election shakes out, Walker has already won a crucial victory.