The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) is the largest union for government workers other than teachers in the United States. Founded in 1932 in Wisconsin, a state that was for decades a stronghold of organized labor, AFSCME represents over 1.3 million government workers and over 188,000 retirees.
ASFCME is the largest member union of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) labor federation. AFSCME engages heavily in political activity and is a major player on the left wing of the Democratic Party. Its agenda today includes support for a government-controlled single-payer healthcare system, support for increased taxes and an expanded welfare state, opposition to entitlement and pension reforms, and support for granting legal status to illegal immigrants. AFSCME makes substantial contributions to and works with Planned Parenthood, the Alliance for Justice, the American Constitution Society, the Center for American Progress, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and other left-of-center organizations.
AFSCME’s president since 2012 is Lee Saunders, who is only the fourth president in the union’s 85-year history. Saunders is closely aligned with the organized Left, and is a member of the Democracy Alliance board of directors and the Democratic National Committee.
AFSCME was organized in the early 1930s, during the period when modern American labor laws—most notably the private-sector National Labor Relations Act—began to take shape. The union received a charter from the then-American Federation of Labor (a forerunner organization to the modern AFL-CIO) in 1936. Arnold Zander, a former government civil service examiner, would serve as the union’s first president until 1964.
Initially, AFSCME did not engage in monopoly bargaining under exclusive representation in the public sector. Policymakers such as generally pro-labor-union Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt expressed the view that “the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.”
Public Sector Collective Bargaining
In the late 1950s, policymakers’ hostility to government worker monopoly bargaining began to ease. In 1958, New York City Mayor Robert Wagner (D) issued an order granting government worker unions collective bargaining privileges; Wisconsin became the first state to recognize government unions the following year. Wisconsin’s decision came after lobbying by AFSCME.
Jerry Wurf Era
In 1964, Jerry Wurf, a career union official and the president of the New York City-based AFSCME District Council 37, was elected president of AFSCME, ousting 28-year incumbent Arnold Zander in a bruising internal battle. He would serve until his death in 1981.
Wurf led an effort to obtain protection—known as the Taylor Law—against firing for striking government workers in New York. Wurf also made the union much more aggressive in its political activity, raising funds for Democratic candidates including U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) and President Jimmy Carter.
A proud left-winger, Wurf also ended a Central Intelligence Agency-supported AFSCME program that organized labor opposition to foreign Marxist regimes. Wurf is credited with positioning AFSCME in opposition to the Cold War-era AFL-CIO’s support for American anti-Communist foreign policies.
By 1970, AFSCME had negotiated 1,000 collective bargaining agreements, roughly doubling the total in place when Wurf took office. Wurf gained a reputation as a combative and militant union leader; he is said to have told Baltimore firefighters to “let Baltimore burn” if the city did not agree to union contract demands.
Under Wurf, AFSCME membership grew substantially; the union reached 1,000,000 members in 1978 after it merged with the Civil Service Employees Association of New York (CSEA). AFSCME lobbied heavily for a federal law establishing mandatory collective bargaining of state and local government employees; no such law passed after the Supreme Court began to restrict the application of federal labor laws to state governments.
Toward the end of his life, Wurf and AFSCME led opposition to the economic liberalization and fiscal responsibility policies of the Ronald Reagan administration.
After Jerry Wurf’s death in 1981, AFSCME elected Gerald McEntee as its next president. By the early 1990s, McEntee’s AFSMCE had emerged as a major force on the political Left, leading opposition to the fiscal policies of Republicans in Congress.
In 1995, McEntee put his union behind the Service Employees International Union-led coalition that supported the takeover of the AFL-CIO by the union federation’s left wing under then-SEIU president John Sweeney. McEntee became Sweeney’s leading strategist after Sweeney won the AFL-CIO’s presidency.
McEntee was credited by AFL-CIO political director Steve Rosenthal as “the main mover and shaker in rebuilding labor’s political clout” for orchestrating the AFL-CIO’s $36 million campaign to support the re-election of Bill Clinton and the election of Democrats to the U.S. Congress in 1996. AFSCME was shaken by the corruption scandals surrounding Clinton’s re-election campaign’s relations with labor. McEntee appeared to break the rules regarding contributions from labor contractors to the later-vacated Clinton-supported re-election of International Brotherhood of Teamsters President Ron Carey.
AFSCME’s powerful District Council 37 in New York City was also rocked by allegations of corruption in the late 1990s; the DC37 executive director resigned along with two aides after the aides admitted rigging a contract vote and one local union president was ousted after claiming excessive expenses.
During the Presidency of George W. Bush, McEntee and AFSCME continued to advance the interests of the Democratic Party’s left wing, even supporting the insurgent 2004 Presidential candidacy of Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. AFSCME loudly opposed President Bush’s attempts to reform Social Security and healthcare. 
In the 2008 Democratic Presidential primaries, AFSCME supported then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.). After Clinton was defeated by then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Illinois), AFSCME and McEntee (who was also serving as chair of the AFL-CIO’s political committee) endorsed Obama’s campaign in the general election.
In 2009 and 2010, AFSCME played a key role in designing, supporting, and defending the Obama administration’s $800 billion stimulus package. The organization also campaigned to raise public support for the passage of healthcare legislation that would become Obamacare. AFSCME’s director of healthcare policy said the union had played ““an important role in the passage” of the Obamacare legislation.
After the 2010 midterm elections—in which the union spent a reported $90 million to support almost exclusively Democratic candidates—AFSCME suffered reversals in state-level policy. Wisconsin passed legislation limiting the scope of collective bargaining and removing union privileges to have governments collect union dues and to exist without reauthorization indefinitely; AFSCME led the unsuccessful opposition. In late 2011, McEntee announced his retirement. In his final months in office, McEntee received a salary of more than $1 million and about $100,000 in additional compensation, more than twice what he was paid 2011.
Rise of Lee Saunders
In June 2012, the union elected its current president, Lee Saunders. Saunders had previously served under McEntee as AFSCME’s number-two officer, the international secretary-treasurer and was McEntee’s chosen successor. Saunders’s rival for the union presidency, Civil Service Employees Association of New York (AFSCME Local 1000) president Danny Donohue, challenged McEntee’s and Saunders’s emphasis on political spending at the expense of member organizing.
Through the 2012 campaign, AFSCME directed its political operation to support President Obama’s re-election, vowing to spend $100 million to re-elect the President and his allies. The union would again back Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primaries, with Saunders appointed to the Democratic National Committee’s platform committee.
AFSCME Council 31, which represents government workers in the state of Illinois, is the named respondent in a case before the Supreme Court concerning the constitutionality of mandatory “agency fees” paid by non-members of the union forced to submit to union representation in the public sector. AFSCME and its local unions have defended the privilege; as of 2017, AFSCME reported 112,233 employees were subject to such fees under AFSCME contracts.
AFSCME is a powerful force in left-wing American politics. The union’s support is coveted by Democrats planning to run for public office at all levels, and AFSCME’s lobbying and advocacy efforts support liberal activists nationwide. The potential payoffs are lucrative for AFSCME: Former AFSCME DC 37 boss Victor Gotbaum immortalized the dynamic in 1975 when he bragged, “We have the ability, in a sense, to elect our own boss.” In 2016, AFSCME national headquarters reported spending $20 million more on its politics and lobbying activities than on representational activities.
2010 Midterm Election
AFSCME’s political spending surged in advance of the 2010 midterm elections, rising from $19 million over the 1998 cycle to approximately $100 million for the 2010 cycle. Larry Scanlon, AFSCME’s director of political action during the 2010 cycle, noted that “We’re the big dog” in political giving. Scanlon was also explicit about AFSCME’s interest in seeing increased government employment (and implicitly, government spending); he told the Wall Street Journal “The more members coming in, the more dues coming in, the more money we have for politics.” The union’s increase in independent political spending was able to be funded by mandatory dues rather than ostensibly elective political contributions after the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC.
2012 General Election
During the 2011-2012 cycle, AFSCME was the 12th-largest contributor to Super PACs tracked by the left-leaning Center for Public Integrity. According to the left-of-center Center for Responsive Politics, AFSCME was the 11th-largest contributor to federal candidates and committees, contributing approximately $13.5 million almost exclusively to Democrats and liberal committees.
2016 General Election
Also see For Our Future (PAC)
In the 2016 presidential election, AFSCME was closely aligned with the Hillary Clinton campaign, with union president Lee Saunders serving as a Clinton superdelegate to the Democratic National Convention. AFSCME funded a super PAC, For Our Future, alongside a number of national labor unions and environmentalist billionaire mega-donor Tom Steyer. Observers speculated that For Our Future was a stalking horse for a potential labor-backed Steyer bid for California governor. In 2018, Steyer declined to run.
In 2017, Saunders was elected a member-at-large of the Democratic National Committee on a slate supporting former Labor Secretary Tom Perez’s successful bid to chair the organization.
Support for Liberal Nonprofits
A number of left-of-center nonprofit and advocacy organizations receive funding from AFSCME.
In 2017, AFSCME reported making contributions to the Campaign for Accountability litigation group, the liberal think tank Center for American Progress; the Fiscal Policy Institute, a state-level advocacy group in New York; left-wing advocacy group Progressive Congress; the liberal pass-through entity Sixteen Thirty Fund; the AFL-CIO membership organization and advocacy group for non-union employees Working America; liberal judicial policy groups American Constitution Society and Alliance for Justice; the left-wing fiscal policy groups Center for Tax Justice and Center for Economic and Policy Research; union support groups Jobs with Justice and Good Jobs First; the National Employment Law Project; the Partnership for Working Families; and left-of-center magazine American Prospect.
Perhaps most strangely, AFSCME contributed $500,000 to a nonprofit associated with Hollywood director Martin Scorsese to develop a pro-union and pro-left-wing film curriculum for K-12 schools.
AFSCME has in recent years made a number of contributions to exceptionally controversial left-wing organizations. After neo-Nazi riots in Virginia in 2017, AFSCME announced its intention to fund the Southern Poverty Law Center, a left-wing group which has been criticized for conflating mainstream conservatives with racist extremists. In 2014, AFSCME provided $400,000 to Planned Parenthood Action Fund, a 501(c)(4) advocacy group associated with the pro-abortion group Planned Parenthood.
AFSCME has made substantial contributions to MSNBC pundit and controversial civil rights agitator Al Sharpton’s National Action Network; in 2017, those contributions totaled $50,000. Critics have suggested AFSCME and other unions used contributions to National Action Network to secure commentary segments on Sharpton’s MSNBC show; AFSCME president Saunders sits on the National Action Network board as of 2016.
AFSCME is intimately involved in the liberal funding network Democracy Alliance. Saunders sits on the Democracy Alliance board of directors. AFSCME contributed $145,000 to the Democracy Alliance in 2017. AFSCME is also involved in the related state-level liberal funding network Committee on States, for which the union is an “institutional partner.” AFSCME also provided $25,000 in funding for Committee on States in 2017.
AFSCME is a leading defender of traditional defined-benefit government worker pension plans. Critics note that government worker pensions have strained state budgets, leading AFSCME to demand tax hikes to cover government benefits for government workers.
The union has opposed a number of state-level pension reform efforts, including those advanced by the union’s traditional Democratic allies. The union responded to a report by the outgoing administration of Gov. Ted Kulongowski (D-Oregon) which called for government workers to make concessions on pay and pensions to stabilize state finances, AFSCME responded with an advertising campaign condemning it. AFSCME also attacked a pension reform in Rhode Island led by then-State Treasurer Gina Raimondo (D), publishing a report smearing Raimondo and suing to overturn the reform law. Longtime union ally Michael Madigan, a Democrat and the Speaker of the Illinois State House, was also condemned by AFSCME for attempting to make minor changes to the state worker pension system, which has been credited with nearly bankrupting the state.
Like the vast majority of labor unions, AFSCME militantly defends its privilege to collect mandatory fees from non-members forced to accept union representation against efforts to adopt right-to-work policies. The practice of mandatory fees was challenged in a 2018 Supreme Court case; the respondent union was the Illinois state-level council of AFSCME, District Council 31.
AFSCME has criticized ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft in favor of the incumbent taxi industry. AFSCME has sought to unionize taxi drivers; a number of Chicago taxi drivers formed Cab Drivers United (AFSCME Local 2500) to lobby on behalf of taxis against a free market in hire vehicles.
United Negro College Fund
In 2014, AFSCME announced it would stop supporting the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) after the UNCF took a donation from the libertarian philanthropists Charles and David Koch and a UNCF official spoke at a summit hosted by the Kochs. The National Action Network, the controversial advocacy group founded by MSNBC host Al Sharpton on whose board AFSCME president Lee Saunders sits, praised AFSCME’s move; other commentators, including some from African American community publications, called for the union to restore its support.
The union and its regional councils have supported extremist candidates, perhaps most prominently then-New York City Councilor (now New York State Assemblyman) Charles Barron (D-Brooklyn). AFSCME and the Civil Service Employees Association of New York, an AFSCME local union, backed Barron in an unsuccessful Congressional bid in 2012 despite his record of associations with anti-Semitic groups and numerous extremist anti-Israel statements.
Fraud and Abuse Allegations
In the late 1990s, District Council 37 officers were suspended by the national union after a financial scandal which then-AFSCME national president McEntee called an “apparent fraud and abuse.” The president of DC 37’s second-largest local union and three of his subordinates allegedly ran up $910,000 of unauthorized credit card charges and made $1 million in other unexplained payments.
Janus v. AFSCME Council 31
On June 27, 2018, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of Mark Janus, an Illinois child support specialist, against Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. The decision, which overturned the precedent created in the 1977 Supreme Court case Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, is considered a landmark case in U.S. labor law and First Amendment free speech rights.
The ruling bars public sector labor unions like AFSCME from forcibly collecting “agency fees” (fees paid as a condition of employment) from non-members. Under the reversed Abood precedent, government worker unions were able to collect agency fees in non-right-to-work states from employees who opted out of union membership.
Lee Saunders has served as president of AFSCME since 2012. He has worked for or served as an officer of AFSCME since 1978, when he took a position as a labor economist with the union. Immediately prior to his election as president, he served as the AFSCME international secretary-treasurer, the union’s number two officer. Due to his connection to AFSCME, Saunders serves as an at-large member of the Democratic National Committee and on a number of left-wing boards, including the boards of the Democracy Alliance, the National Action Network, and the Economic Policy Institute.
Elissa McBride serves as the AFSCME secretary-treasurer. She, like Saunders, is a career union official and the former president of United Association for Labor Education. She is a former Youth Section organizer for the far-left Democratic Socialists of America and is married to AFL-CIO policy director Damon Silvers.
Paul Robert Booth
Paul Robert Booth, a former strategist for AFSCME and left-wing activist, died on January 17, 2018. Booth served as chief assistant to AFSCME union president Gerald W. McEntee, and as executive assistant to Lee Saunders, McEntee’s successor. In these positions, Booth worked to ally the organization with Democratic politicians and expand welfare programs. Booth is credited with organizing a coalition in Baltimore, Maryland, the efforts of which successfully pressured the enactment of the nation’s first minimum wage law.