The lion’s share of media attention may have gone to outside groups, such as American Crossroads and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, but the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, the government-employees’ union, spent more than $90 million on this election. Still, the effort wasn’t nearly enough to stave off heavy losses for Democrats. Can AFSCME work with a party that said repeatedly before the midterms that it doesn’t plan to compromise? Gerald McEntee, the union’s president, sat down with National Journal to discuss how he’ll handle a more conservative Congress. Edited excerpts follow.
NJ What’s your relationship with John Boehner?
McEntee Well, I would know him because he’s on television all the time and he has that great tan, right? Looked like he was getting rid it for a while because he was being so ridiculed. We have no relationship with Boehner. We don’t have a relationship with—what’s the second guy in command?—Eric Cantor.
NJ What do you make of the tea party?
McEntee The tea baggers, or whatever the hell they’re called—they’ve constantly pushed the Republicans to a more conservative position in American politics. And if they win and win big, these people won’t stop pushing. We’ll have a relatively large target on our back. It won’t be the first time—and I pray to God it won’t be the last time, either—but we’re going to stay in the ring and keep fighting.
NJ If the tea party is pushing Republicans further to the right, will it be harder to compromise with the GOP?
McEntee It will make it harder. But … they’re very loosely organized. There’s no leader. Some Republican politicians like to consider themselves as having real influence on the tea party. I don’t think they do. [Tea partiers are] out there, and you’ll have a lot of them vote, but I don’t think there’s a whole lot of them out there. They’ve been able to build this public momentum, in terms of rallies and things like that, but I think they’re very disjointed.
NJ How much influence does AFSCME have on elections now?
McEntee In politics in general, we have become a very, very strong organization. Now, it’s worth something in terms of elections, then in terms of what happens after elections. Win or lose, even some—not all—Republicans will look at us and say, “This union is strong. And we might as well make our peace with this union.” We’ll sit down and talk with whoever wants to talk with us. And if Boehner wants to talk while we’re on the 15th green or something, I’ll be glad to do that.
NJ Are you concerned about the role of outside spending in elections?
McEntee The [Citizens United Supreme Court] decision hurt the electoral process, and it hurt a good portion of middle America. It looked like Karl Rove was buried and gone, and now he’s up and he’s running about three of these groups with a ton of money but no transparency in terms of where the money is coming from. On the opposite hand, we’ve spent a lot of money, but we have complete transparency.… It’s laid out on the table. That’s a big difference.
NJ How can unions regain their strength?
McEntee The path is politics. Because if you win, then you’re able to get legislation passed, like the Employee Free Choice Act, things like that. That would make it—I don’t want to say easy, but it would make the playing field more level to organize workers, particularly in the private sector. But in the public sector, there’s great opportunity to add members, too, even though we’re [already] 35 percent of the [government-employee] labor movement, something like that.
NJ How has labor changed since you started in 1958?
McEntee It’s lost members in the private sector. Back in the day, it was very powerful. John Kennedy would call [labor leaders] into a room and ask, “Who should I make vice president of the United States?” Rich Trumka is now the AFL-CIO president. But he’s the president of an organization that, to an extent, is not nearly as strong as it used to be. That makes it much more difficult for him to lead, to show strength. He’s doing a good job, but it has certainly changed.
NJ How much longer are you going to do this?
McEntee I think till tonight. [Laughs.] No, my term is over in—what is it?—a year and a half? I don’t intend to run again. I think 74 years is enough. I’ve been with the unions—how long?—52 years.
This article appears in the November 6, 2010, edition of National Journal Magazine.