Gerald W. McEntee, the longtime president of one of the country’s largest public employee labor unions, died on Sunday at his home in Naples, Fla. He was 87.
His death was confirmed by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which he led from 1981 to 2012.
As the union’s president, he helped expand its active membership from about 1 million to over 1.2 million at its peak while leading key fights against the privatization of government programs.
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 it 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.”
Not long after backing John J. Sweeney to become president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. in 1995, Mr. McEntee became chairman of the federation’s political committee, effectively formalizing his role as a Democratic kingmaker. Steve Rosenthal, the committee’s top staffer at the time, recalled him as a gruff but supportive boss who was committed to expanding labor’s role in federal elections.
One of Mr. Rosenthal’s early presentations to Mr. McEntee featured a plan to create a political mobilization apparatus, including organizers and phone-banking, that would operate year-round, not just in the months leading up to Election Day.
As Mr. Rosenthal recalled: “When I finished, he said, ‘That’s brilliant — it’s the most brilliant thing I ever heard. And every five or six years, someone comes in with that same plan. I tell him how brilliant it is, and if they can figure out how to fund it year-round, go for it.’”
Yet Mr. McEntee moved aggressively to make A.F.L. funds available for political campaigns: more than $30 million in the 1996 and 1998 election cycles and more than $40 million in 2000.
“That was a far bigger program than the A.F.L. had ever run, and we had a significant amount of success” Mr. Rosenthal said, pointing to victories by Mr. Clinton and down-ballot candidates in 1996 and pickups for Democrats during the midterm elections of 1998, unusual for a party that controls the White House. “He drove that train.”
In the 2000 presidential cycle, Mr. McEntee used his perch atop the A.F.L.’s political committee to help secure an endorsement of Vice President Al Gore, who was then facing a strong challenge from former Senator Bill Bradley for the Democratic presidential nomination. The A.F.L. had rarely endorsed a candidate during a contested Democratic primary, but Mr. McEntee believed it was important to consolidate the labor movement behind Mr. Gore.
“Jerry had the view that you should be with people who are with you, and try and be with them early, and they’ll remember, they’ll be grateful for it,” said Steve Elmendorf, who worked closely with Mr. McEntee in the 1990s as a top aide to Rep. Richard Gephardt, Democrat of Missouri.
Not all of Mr. McEntee’s political bets worked out. In late 2003, he helped secure AFSCME’s endorsement of Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont for the Democratic presidential nomination. Dr. Dean was also endorsed by the powerful Service Employees International Union, but his campaign ran aground shortly after his third place finish in the 2004 Iowa caucuses.
Still, Democratic operatives said the endorsement reflected Mr. McEntee’s philosophy that labor needed to take bigger risks in politics to remain relevant. “He understood that we needed to be bold,” Mr. Rosenthal said. “I think the Dean thing was an example of that.”
Gerald William McEntee was born on Jan. 11, 1935, in Philadelphia to William and Mary Josephine (Creed) McEntee. His father was a sanitation truck driver for the city who helped organize co-workers.
Mr. McEntee graduated from La Salle University in Philadelphia in 1956. After serving briefly in the Army, he went to work monitoring traffic volume at intersections for the Philadelphia Bureau of Traffic Engineering, during which time he joined AFSCME.
He is survived by his wife, Barbara (Rochford) McEntee; his daughters, Patricia Gehlen, Kathleen Hammock and Kelly Hamlin; his sister, Mary Casale; 10 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
Within several months of joining AFSCME, Mr. McEntee became a staff member of the union’s Philadelphia local council. In 1970, Pennsylvania passed a law allowing state employees to bargain collectively, and Mr. McEntee helped persuade them to join AFSCME.
In 1973, he became the top staff member of the AFSCME council that represented the entire state; in that post he helped negotiate a contract that included generous health insurance and prescription drug benefits. When the state tried to pull back from the agreement a few years later, Mr. McEntee led a strike, one of the largest at that point in U.S. history involving public employees. The two sides settled within a few days.
Mr. McEntee was chosen to replace AFSCME’s longtime leader Jerry Wurf after his death in December 1981; he won a full term as president in 1984. According to the union, Mr. McEntee made gender pay equity a priority in contract bargaining during the 1980s.
Throughout much of his more than 30-year tenure, Mr. McEntee played a leading role resisting government cuts and privatization sought by Republican officials and some moderate Democrats. He helped lead a successful campaign to defeat President George W. Bush’s proposal to partly privatize Social Security in 2005.
In 2011, when Wisconsin’s newly elected governor, Scott Walker, began seeking to roll back collective bargaining rights for public employees in that state, Mr. McEntee helped spearhead the opposition, which included massive protests at the state capital.
“Jerry led the labor response to the assault in Wisconsin,” said Larry Cohen, the president of the Communications Workers of America at the time, adding, “He was almost like a Paul Revere saying, ‘If this isn’t a wake-up call for all of us, what would be?’”
Partly as a result of that alarm, Mr. Cohen said, his own union began holding monthly town hall meetings involving tens of thousands of shop stewards.
The results of these efforts were mixed. Mr. Walker was largely successful in curbing bargaining rights in Wisconsin, and Republican governors and legislators later rolled the same for public employees in nearby states, like Michigan. In 2018 the Supreme Court ruled that government employees in any state could opt out of joining a union or paying a union fee, striking down mandatory fees in more than 20 states. The decision led to a bleeding of union budgets.
But the unions undid a Wisconsin-style rollback of collective bargaining rights in Ohio through a ballot measure in 2011, and such counter-mobilization of labor appeared to build momentum, creating a wave of more aggressive labor activism later in the decade, especially among teachers.
“They were not entirely prepared for the kind of militant pushback that would come with Walker and others,” said Mr. McCartin, the historian. “To McEntee’s credit, he did dig in once it became clear how that onslaught was happening.”