GWEN IFILL: As local governments roll back employee pensions and benefits, the nation's largest public labor union prepares for an internal battle that could shape its external mission.
VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: You provide the hospitals. You provide the roads. You provide the ability of people to live a decent middle -class life. We owe you.
GWEN IFILL: Speaking before one of the Democratic Party's most important constituencies, Vice President Joe Biden issued a rallying cry yesterday to the nation's largest public sector union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFSCME.
Union members welcome those fighting words as public sector unions engage in a series of battles around the country over jobs, benefits and bargaining rights. Only a few weeks ago in Wisconsin, where AFSCME was born in 1932, Republican Governor Scott Walker survived a union-driven recall attempt. The bitter vote came after Walker signed a bill to end collective bargaining rights for most public sector unions.
On the same day, in California, the labor movement also lost two smaller skirmishes, as voters in San Diego and San Jose decided to cut city workers' pensions. It was a setback from only last fall in Ohio, where public unions beat back an attempt to scale back collective bargaining rights.
These very public debates have now led to a vigorous internal one as well, as AFSCME tomorrow elects a new president for the first time in a generation. The race pits Lee Saunders, the current secretary treasurer, against Danny Donohue, head of AFSCME's New York state branch.
Saunders, who would be the organization's first African-American president, pledges to increase the union's membership, which, including retirees, now stands at 1.6 million. Donohue wants to shift the union's focus away from national campaigns and back to grassroots political organizing on the local level.
AFSCME is expected to spend as much as $100 million on campaigns this year, including the presidential race. But labor's role in politics may be impacted by its dwindling membership.
More than a third of public sector workers are unionized, compared to only 12 percent of the nation's overall work force. So, is the balance of power shifting as well?
For that, we turn to two journalists who have been following that story.
Steven Greenhouse covers labor issues for The New York Times. He joins us from Los Angeles, where the AFSCME election will be held tomorrow. And Alec MacGillis is with The New Republic. He's reported on the battles in Wisconsin and elsewhere.
Steve Greenhouse, you're out there in Los Angeles. What's your sense of how critical this vote is tomorrow?
STEVEN GREENHOUSE, The New York Times: I think both candidates, Mr. Saunders and Mr. Donohue, are going to try very hard to build up the union, make it stronger, but they realize that the tide is in ways going against them after these votes in Wisconsin, after these votes in San Jose and San Diego.
I mean, they think that the public misunderstands them. They say public sector workers are not making nearly as much as Wall Street bankers. Many of them make $30,000, $40,000, $50,000 a year. And they think the public misunderstands them. They think conservatives in trying to shrink government have made public sector unions a target, especially because, as you said, Gwen, they are a pillar of the Democratic Party and if you weaken public sector unions, you also help weaken the Democratic Party.
GWEN IFILL: There also seems, Alec, to be a disagreement about whether all this money should be spent on the national level, whether I think the term is checkbook unionism is rampant now.
ALEC MACGILLIS, The New Republic: Yes.
Mr. Donohue feels that too much of the money has gone to the sort of Washington politics. He was very upset about a big ad buy that AFSCME made back in January against Mitt Romney down in Florida, where they spent a million dollars against Romney in Florida, wondering, was that really the best use of money?
There's some question of whether some of his rhetoric now, Mr. Donohue's rhetoric, might be sort of for the purposes of the campaign. If he really gets into the office as the head of AFSCME, is he going to pull back on national spending as much as he says?
GWEN IFILL: Didn't they spend a lot in Wisconsin?
ALEC MACGILLIS: Oh, they did. They spent a lot of money this time in Wisconsin and before to try to stop Walker in the first place.
Donohue's argument seems to be a little bit more -- less about money and more about, should we be talking more to Republicans who are at the local level as they come up the ranks of local government, basically to try to get it to the point where they don't dislike us and are not as out to get us as they now seem to be?
He's in a position to say that in some sense because he's from a state, New York State, where you have still some Republicans who are not viscerally anti-union. There's some question of whether that actually would work more broadly.
GWEN IFILL: Well, Steve, do you hear that, too, that AFSCME and unions like it are seriously thinking, maybe we're allying too closely with the Democratic Party?
STEVEN GREENHOUSE: I hear that more in other unions than with AFSCME.
I think AFSCME is generally very pro-Democratic. You hear that more, Gwen, with the firefighters and then the police and the National Education Association, other big public sector unions, which have a long tradition of working with moderate Republicans, especially the cops and firefighters.
AFSCME is a union that, you know, strongly believes in FDR and the New Deal traditions and the -- Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, and they're fighting very hard to maintain the social safety net. And they see that the Democrats are trying to do that. And they generally see the Republicans as opposed to that.
So, in the 2008, 2010 and now 2012 campaign, I think AFSCME will overwhelmingly back Democratic candidates, partly because they think the Democrats are not going to try to chop public sector unions into little pieces, the way we have seen happen in Wisconsin and in Ohio.
GWEN IFILL: Well, Alec, let's talk about Wisconsin, because 38 percent of the voters, of union voters, voted not to recall the Republican governor.
ALEC MACGILLIS: Right.
GWEN IFILL: So this wasn't so easily divided.
ALEC MACGILLIS: No, that's actually -- that's sort of in line with generally about a third of union voters vote Republican. So that wasn't so unusual.
I do think with Wisconsin we have to be careful not to overstate it too much, what happened there. Eight months ago in Ohio, there was a very similar issue up for vote in a more conservative state that's more important to the Democrats' prospects. And the law to do away with collective bargaining rights lost by 23 points, by 60,000 more votes than John Kasich had been elected by the year before.
GWEN IFILL: Right.
ALEC MACGILLIS: That was on exactly this question whether to take away collective bargaining rights from public second workers.
GWEN IFILL: So maybe the problem in Wisconsin was about the idea of a recall more than about the underlying issue?
ALEC MACGILLIS: Exactly. And it was just that the context wasn't ideal for the Democrats. So I think this is a very tough time for unions, obviously, but I think we have to be careful at this point not to overstate their plate.
GWEN IFILL: Steve, in smaller places, San Jose, San Diego, where we saw these kind of rollbacks, are they another sign? Is that a canary in a coal mine or are they also separate and unique?
STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Well, I think it's all related, Gwen.
Whether in Wisconsin or in San Diego and San Jose, I think a lot of the public think that the public sector unions have it too good. And clearly in San Jose and San Diego, the voters thought, we're being squeezed by recession. We're being squeezed by higher taxes. We think one way to help hold down our taxes is to reduce pensions for public sector workers.
I was interviewing a professor here in California who said, you know, when the labor movement was really growing in the 1950s and 1960s at General Motors and U.S. Steel, a lot of private sector workers said it's great that unions won health coverage, it's great that they won great pensions, it's great that they won three- and four-week vacations, because we, the non-union workers, will get a lot of the same thing.
But now kind of the mentality has changed. A lot of private sector workers say, well, gee, we no longer have pensions. Why should government workers have pensions? We no longer have generous health care. Why should government workers have good health care?
And the public sector unions and workers are saying, we think everyone should have good pensions. We want to serve as a model to help other people get good pensions. And one big difference between San Diego, San Jose and Wisconsin is, San Diego and San Jose, they're not trying to take away collective bargaining. They're not trying to destroy the public sector unions.
They're saying, look, guys, we think you have it too good. We want to clip your wings somewhat on pensions. But we're willing to negotiate with you and work with you in the future.
GWEN IFILL: Alec, absent this incredible, stressed economy, would there be this reexamination of mission? Would there be this navel-gazing going on among public sector unions?
ALEC MACGILLIS: No. They're under the stress because we're all under the stress.
I think Steve makes an important point. And I think the fight is really going to be drawing the line between giving up some pensions, health care benefits at the bargaining table, which they have shown willingness to do across the country, and losing -- actually losing their rights and actually losing their numbers, because what Scott Walker set out to do was to actually undermine them institutionally and keep them from collecting dues, basically eviscerate the union as a hole, because it's a big sort of foundation of the Democratic Party and supporting the Democratic Party.
And so I think what you are going to see going forward is other attempts to undermine their actual rights and their numbers. They're going to have to try to hold the line at that, while still probably giving up some dollars at the bargaining table, which, again, they have shown some willingness to do.
GWEN IFILL: And perhaps tomorrow's election will give us some sort of guide of which direction this union's going to go, at least this one.
Alec MacGillis of The New Republic and Steve Greenhouse of The New York Times, thank you both very much.
ALEC MACGILLIS: Thank you.
STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Thank you, Gwen. Nice to be here.