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AFSCME's Gerry McEntee Takes on White House

by Ben Smith

The president of one of America's largest labor unions, Gerry McEntee, has emerged as a major obstacle to the White House's efforts to maintain a unified front in the health care debate.

Gerry McEntee The veteran president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) has crossed lines that few labor leaders - even those who quietly agree with him - would go near.

McEntee led workers in chanting a barnyard epithet to describe Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus's health care bill, which would levy a new tax on expensive health care plans. He published an op-ed in U.S.A. Today warning, in terms that could be used against Democrats in the midterms, that the plan could tax the middle class and cost workers their health care. And he blew off a plea from White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and published an open letter promising to "oppose" legislation that contained the tax - published over the objections, several labor officials said, of other union presidents whose names appeared on the letter.

"We have had just about enough of his gratuitous slaps," said a senior White House official Friday, calling the politically charged language "outrageous and unacceptable" from an ally - even from one that had, the official noted, devoted substantial resources to health care efforts.

"He's doing his members a real disservice," said the official, who said that while all other labor leaders had been careful to keep their opposition to elements of health care proposals modulated and largely inside the tent, McEntee was "beyond the pale."

But a spokesman for AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka stood by McEntee.

"We work closely with the White House and count ourselves among their strongest supporters," said the spokesman, Eddie Vale. "Sometimes being supportive means staking out a tough position, and nobody understands that better than President McEntee."

McEntee's posture - and the fierce response from a White House determined to keep allies in line - reflects a broader dilemma on the left of the Democratic Party, which is feeling both lingering satisfaction at Obama's victory and frustration at his caution.

From labor to civil libertarians to anti-war activists, progressive organizers have had to choose between biting their tongues and losing the access and power that comes with friends in the White House. McEntee is among the most prominent leaders who has been willing to challenge the administration.

Despite his investment - and AFSCME's - in health care reform, he has been willing to risk his relationships and his influence with powerful Democratic leaders in the White House and the Senate for a bill he can more fully embrace.

McEntee's stand also reflects the messy internal politics of the labor movement. His arch-rival in organizing public sector workers, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) President Andrew Stern, has aligned himself closely with the White House, pushing McEntee, an associate said, to define himself as the loyal opposition.

The posture is entirely in character for the brawny, brawling Pennsylvanian, who has a long record of confrontational politics, stretching back to the 1980s, when he led fierce attacks on Democrats who backed a balanced-budget amendment.

Unafraid of making enemies, he has a history - unusual for a union leader - of diving early and aggressively into Democratic primaries, supporting the unsuccessful presidential candidacies of Howard Dean and Hillary Clinton, and, most recently, endorsing Terry McAuliffe, who lost to Creigh Deeds in the Virginia gubernatorial primary.

McEntee first angered the Obama camp during the 2008 campaign with his support for Clinton , especially in the early, demure days of the primary season, when his union mailed a harsh attack on Obama to New Hampshire voters, which asked: "How can we be sure the new President is ready?"

In labor circles, McEntee is regarded with a mixture of pride, indulgence and disdain.

"Gerry's never been shy about standing up to his members, regardless of who's in power - he's there to fight for his members," said the president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, a longtime McEntee friend, Rick Bloomingdale.

"A lot of people have made the political calculus that we don't want to piss of the White House, so we don't want to be that overt - but they're certainly glad that somebody is," said one prominent labor official. "That's the great thing about him - you can't edit the guy - and he likes to do the ‘bull***' chant whenever he can find an excuse."

McEntee, traveling in Puerto Rico to oppose layoffs of public workers there, was unreachable Friday, according to his spokesman, Chris Policano.

"No one's worked harder than AFSCME to support the president's vision of providing quality, affordable health care for all Americans," said Policano, who said the union has spent more than $2 million on advertising for health care reform, lobbied Congress, paid campaign organizers in 13 states, and turned out workers to town hall meetings, while planning a large-scale "national day of action" October 20.

"President McEntee is fiercely committed to the principles we've been advocating for months, including a public option and keeping costs off the backs of working families. He's more than willing to keep the heat on Congress to make that happen," he said.

When Emmanuel recently requested that he tone down his public criticism of compromise legislation, McEntee responded dismissively. "He told us that we really don't want to be looked upon as the group that stopped meaningful health-care reform," he said in an interview with Bloomberg News . "We would love to be on the exact same page as the White House, but we see ourselves as fighting for our members."

So instead of backing down, McEntee convened a conference call Tuesday afternoon of AFL-CIO union presidents, and presented them with an ad that would run the next day in POLITICO, the Washington Post, and other Washington newspapers containing this uncompromising language: "Unless the bill that goes to the floor of the U.S. Senate makes substantial progress to address the concerns of working men and women, we will oppose it."

The last phrase shocked other union leaders on the call, and three of them - Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, Leo Gerard of the United Steelworkers, and Harold Schaitberger of the International Association of Firefighters - questioned the language.

"It's gone," McEntee said of the ad, and when Schaitberger - a longtime foe -- tried to pass a resolution blocking the letter, he objected on procedural grounds.

"Is there any imaginable scenario where even AFSCME - the big blowhard - would oppose a health care reform bill by this congress and this president?" asked an official at one objecting union, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Is there any scenario that that would happen? So why would we say it in an ad?"

Others said they might still oppose the legislation, but that the ad was unnecessarily strident. "This is very premature to be putting markers down," Schaitberger said. "There are so many steps left. There are two Senate bills to be merged. We're going to get a lot further down this road by being prospective."

The unions that thought McEntee had gone too far are circulating a letter to the Senate that changes the word "oppose" to "not support it."

Another union president on the call, Unite Here's John Wilhelm, downplayed the differences."The president and the labor movement have the same agenda on health care. There might be tactical disagreements from time to time," he said. As for McEntee, he added: "There's a lot of different styles in the labor movement, and that's ok."

One longtime McEntee associate said the president and his aides will just have to get used to him. "That's just the kind of bare-knuckles politics McEntee has played for a long time," the person said. "I know the White House is pissed off at him, but it's awful early in the presidency to be tossing someone over the side."

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