Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s recall election victory was as much as a defeat for labor unions as it was for his opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. Since then, the signs that unions are in trouble have been mounting rapidly.
“Many labor unions are going through a real struggle,” Michael Eastman, executive director of labor policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce told The Daily Caller. “But it’s not related to labor laws like the unions are trying to say; it’s related to their own management issues.”
One of America’s largest public employees’ unions, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), is a prime example of this struggle.
Last year, after failing to block Walker’s budget repair law, which included the elimination of automatic dues collection and limited union bargaining power, AFSCME watched its membership drop by 55 percent in the state. When federal workers in Wisconsin were given the choice of having membership dues withdrawn from their paychecks, 34,000 of them used their newfound freedom of choice to say ‘No.’ Determined to exact revenge, public-sector unions underwent a mission to unseat Walker.
Still reeling from this defeat, AFSCME is now embroiled in a heated leadership battle following the retirement of former union President Gerald McEntee.
McEntee’s right-hand man, hand-picked successor and the union’s secretary-treasurer, Lee Saunders, is facing a tough challenge by Danny Donohue — the union’s leader in New York.
The pair will face off in a debate at the union’s 40th international convention that began on Monday in Los Angeles.
The Donohue campaign has accused Saunders of mismanaging the union’s finances, including sanctioning McEntee travelling by private planes.
Since the beginning of 2010, the former president traveled by chartered aircraft 18 times, racking up a hefty bill of $325,000, the Wall Street Journal reported.
“We think that the secretary-treasurer should have stood up to the president and said that this was inappropriate and in violation of policy,” a representative for the Donohue campaign told TheDC.
Donohue’s campaign is also raising questions about the legality of some of this travel under the tax code, especially for flights between McEntee’s primary residence and AFSCME’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Accusations that Saunders has been irresponsible with the union’s money extend as far as much of AFSCME’s political spending.
“There’s a sense that AFSCME’s a sort of cash register for favored Democratic causes, but that’s not necessarily in the best interests of members,” Donohue’s campaign said.
In 2009, AFSCME donated over $500,000 to Terry McAuliffe in the Democratic primary of Virginia’s gubernatorial election. According to the Donohue campaign, there are less than 1,000 AFSCME members in Virginia but McAuliffe is a friend McEntee.
“I don’t believe that AFSCME has one member in the city of San Francisco but they were contributing money to the Democratic primary for the mayor of San Francisco,” Donohue’s campaign representative said.
“A lot of members would have objected to this if they knew about it,” the representative added. “But AFSCME tends to hide a lot of their finances on political spending and otherwise.”
These internal struggles and political failures are leading to speculations that the end of organized labor is in sight.
Glenn Spencer, executive director of the Workforce Freedom Initiative at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said that unions are still too big to collapse, though their future is unclear.
“AFSCME members and the leadership have more to worry about than how they might spend their union treasury,” Spencer told TheDC. “If you look at the trend across the country right now, it’s not an encouraging one for public sector unions.”
Spencer, whose expertise is in union activity, believes that AFSCME’s focus is misdirected away from the major challenges they currently face. Unless unions find away to halt dramatically declining membership, their lack of private sector unionization and the financial trouble of their pension funds, they should continue to worry.