Gerald McEntee, union leader of AFSCME, dies aged 87

Gerald W. McEntee, the son of a Philadelphia street cleaner, became one of the most influential labor leaders in the United States and served for three decades as President of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. He died at his home in Naples, Florida on July 10. He was 87.

The cause was complications after a stroke, said his daughter Kathleen Hammock.

Mr. McEntee led the AFSCME, the largest union of state and local government employees in the United States, from his election in 1981 until his resignation in 2012. Richard Hurd, Professor Emeritus of Industrial Relations at Cornell University, described Mr. McEntee in Interviewed as one of several union leaders who helped “modernize the labor movement and usher in a new strategic approach to union growth and organizing”.

The AFSCME — which represents sanitation workers, school bus drivers, correctional officers and civil engineers, among many other groups of public employees — saw membership increase from 900,000 to 1.4 million under McEntee, the New York Times reported shortly before he left office.

AFSCME achieved this growth in part, according to Hurd, through a “smart policy strategy” to change public sector bargaining laws to make it easier to recruit and retain members at the state and local levels. This approach, he said, “enabled the AFSCME to maintain a stable membership at a time when private sector unions were in decline.”

For 15 years, Mr. McEntee also chaired the policy committee of the AFL-CIO, the union’s governing body, and became known as the kingmaker of the Democratic Party, helping to channel millions of dollars in campaign funds and coveted employment endorsements.

Presenting one of the first major union confirmations to Bill Clinton in 1992, Mr. McEntee is credited with helping the Arkansas governor win the Democratic nomination and eventually the presidency.

“He supported me in 1992 when no one but my mother and I believed I could win [Jerry] McEntee,” Clinton said in a 1996 speech. “My own home was at odds as to whether we could win, but Gerry McEntee thought we could win.”

Within the union organizing community, Mr. McEntee was one of several prominent leaders who spearheaded efforts to revitalize the labor movement as it was dwindling in membership and power in the 1980s and 1990s. He helped lead an uprising against AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland, who resigned in 1995 and was replaced by John Sweeney, former President of the Service Employees International Union.

Julie Kosterlitz, a reporter for the National Journal, wrote that Mr. McEntee “personally pursued Kirkland tenaciously as the irascible potentate made a series of scheduled speeches across the country,” and publicly debated him until “Kirkland broke off his stump speech, a weary Hamlet – like a monologue, without answering questions – and thus setting the course for his retirement within a few weeks.”

“He was the most important mover and shaker in rebuilding the political influence of the labor movement,” Steve Rosenthal, a former AFL CIO. political director, told the Times of Mr. McEntee in 2011. “He’s a big personality and he rolls the dice very big.”

Gerald William McEntee was born on January 11, 1935 in Philadelphia. His father was a city reorganizer who organized municipal workers in the 1930s. His mother was a housewife.

As a teenager, Mr. McEntee worked summers for a company that provided beach umbrellas and loungers in the resort community of Wildwood, New Jersey. According to AFSCME, he led his first strike in protest at unpaid work on rainy days and was fired for his efforts.

In 1956, Mr. McEntee received a bachelor’s degree in economics from La Salle University in Philadelphia and joined AFSCME District Council 33 that same year. He later became a union employee and helped pass a 1970 Pennsylvania law establishing organizing and collective bargaining rights for public employees.

“I’ve seen people benefit from it,” he told the National Journal of the organizing effort. “I’ve seen them get dignity and better wages.” In times of political cronyism, he added: “If a new governor were elected, he would fire 50,000 people because they belonged to the wrong party. … We stopped all of that.’”

Mr. McEntee rose through the AFSCME ranks until he was elected to succeed the organization’s President, Jerry Wurf, who died in 1981 after suffering a heart attack. Mr. McEntee was succeeded by Lee Saunders as AFSCME President in 2012.

Mr. McEntee’s marriage to the former Janet Wills ended in divorce. Their daughter Christine Serenelli died in 2017.

Survivors include his 33-year-old wife, the former Barbara Rochford of Naples; three daughters from his first marriage, Patricia Gehlen of Jacksonville, Florida, Kathleen Hammock of Naples, and Kelly Hamlin of Wildwood Crest, NJ; a sister; 10 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

Mr. McEntee’s resignation coincided with efforts by Republicans, particularly former Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, to severely limit the influence and power of public sector unions. They remained as important to Mr. McEntee as ever.

“I’ve always believed that public workers deserve a voice,” he told the National Journal in 2011. “There is a price to pay for turning your back on the middle class: working-class families will rise up and organize and make our voices heard.” Gerald McEntee, union leader of AFSCME, dies aged 87

James Brien

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