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Gerald McEntee, RIP

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CX2TBJ Members of the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees (AFSCME) rally to protest public services

Former AFSCME head Gerald McEntee has died.

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

“He’s an important figure in repositioning 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 was that he began to use the union’s political power to exact things that in an earlier era the union might have turned to strikes to exact.”

After Mr. McEntee became president, the union began spending heavily on state legislative races, reckoning that legislators were important both for the funding of public services and for the once-per-decade redistricting that helps determine control of Congress.

Then, during the 1992 presidential campaign, Mr. McEntee persuaded the union’s international executive board to endorse Bill Clinton, at the time the governor of Arkansas, whom many union officials regarded as less labor-friendly than rival Democratic candidates, including Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa.

The formal endorsement appeared to come in the late winter or early spring, but the union had signaled its support weeks earlier, when many Democratic voters and portions of the party establishment were still skeptical of Mr. Clinton. The union’s backing helped Mr. Clinton portray himself as an acceptable nominee within the party who could end 12 years of Republican control of the presidency.

“Harkin was a really good friend to labor — 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 this — you have to be able to win. That’s the reality of the situation.”

I’ll never quite forgive the Clinton endorsement over the vastly superior Harkin, but McEntee was a cold calculating bastard when he needed to be and I don’t say that as an insult. I personally reject the idea that Clinton was necessary because Democrats lost three straight elections by nominating liberals–neither Carter nor Dukakis were anything like liberals, though Mondale certainly was. But the conventional wisdom was there, McEntee saw it, and at the very least, it worked for his union if not the industrial unions.

In any case, McEntee is one of the most important union leaders of the late twentieth century, one with a strong vision on how to build a union at a very inauspicious time to do so. RIP to a great labor leader who led a lot of tough battles, ending with the losses against Scott Walker, but it was a hell of a fight even if it was a defeat.

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