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Gerald McEntee, longtime president of AFSCME labor union, dies at 87

"I saw them get dignity, better wages," Mr. McEntee said of efforts to win benefits for public sector workers.DANIEL ROSENBAUM/NYT

Gerald McEntee, a Philadelphia street cleaner’s son who became one of the most influential labor leaders in the United States as president for three decades of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, died July 10 at his home in Naples, Fla. He was 87.

The cause was complications from a stroke, his daughter Kathleen Hammock said.

Mr. McEntee led AFSCME, the largest union of state and local government employees in the United States, from his election in 1981 until he stepped down in 2012. Richard Hurd, a professor emeritus of labor relations at Cornell University, described him in an interview as one of several union leaders who helped “modernize the labor movement and move into a new strategic approach to labor union growth and organizing.”

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AFSCME - which represents sanitation workers, school bus drivers, correctional officers and civil engineers, among many other groups of public employees - saw its membership grow under Mr. McEntee to 1.4 million from 900,000, The New York Times reported shortly before he left office.

AFSCME achieved this growth in part, Hurd said, through a “savvy political strategy“ to change public-sector bargaining laws so that it was easier to recruit and maintain membership at the state and local level. That approach, he said, “allowed AFSCME to maintain stable membership at a time when private-sector unions were declining.”

For 15 years, Mr. McEntee also chaired the political committee of the AFL-CIO, the union umbrella federation, becoming known as a Democratic Party kingmaker as he helped direct millions of dollars in campaign contributions as well as coveted labor endorsements.

By delivering one of the first major union endorsements to Bill Clinton in 1992, Mr. McEntee was credited with helping the Arkansas governor win the Democratic nomination and ultimately the presidency.

"He supported me in '92 when nobody thought I could win except my mother and [Jerry] McEntee," Clinton said in a 1996 speech. "My own home was divided on whether we could win, but [Jerry] McEntee thought we could win."

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Within the community of union organizers, Mr. McEntee was one of several prominent leaders who spearheaded an effort to revitalize the labor movement as it suffered a decline in membership and power in the 1980s and 1990s. He helped led an uprising against AFL-CIO’s president, Lane Kirkland, who resigned in 1995 and was replaced by John Sweeney, formerly the president of the Service Employees International Union.

Julie Kosterlitz, a reporter for National Journal, wrote that Mr. McEntee “personally dogged Kirkland as the irascible potentate made a series of scheduled speeches around the country,” publicly debating him until “Kirkland canned his stump speech, gave a weary, Hamlet-like soliloquy, left without taking questions - and thus set the stage for his retirement within weeks.”

“He was the main mover and shaker in rebuilding labor’s political clout,” Steve Rosenthal, a former AFL-CIO political director, told the Times of Mr. McEntee in 2011. “He’s a big personality and he rolls the dice in a very big way.”

Gerald William McEntee was born in Philadelphia on Jan. 11, 1935. His father was a city sanitation worker who organized municipal workers in the 1930s. His mother was a homemaker.

As a teenager, Mr. McEntee worked during the summer for a company that provided beach umbrellas and chairs in the New Jersey resort community of Wildwood. He led his first strike to protest uncompensated work on rainy days, according to AFSCME, and was fired for his efforts.

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In 1956, Mr. McEntee received a bachelor’s degree in economics from La Salle University in Philadelphia and joined AFSCME District Council 33 that same year. He later became a union staffer and helped spur passage of a 1970 Pennsylvania law that established organizing and collective bargaining rights for public employees.

"I saw people benefit," he told National Journal of the organizing effort. "I saw them get dignity, better wages." In the era of political cronyism, he added, "if a new governor got elected, he'd fire 50,000 people because they belonged to the wrong party. . . . We stopped all that.'"

Mr. McEntee rose through the AFSCME ranks until his election to succeed the organization’s president, Jerry Wurf, who died in 1981 after a heart attack. Mr. McEntee was succeeded as AFSCME president in 2012 by Lee Saunders.

Mr. McEntee’s marriage to the former Janet Wills ended in divorce. Their daughter Christine Serenelli died in 2017.

He leaves his wife of 33 years, the former Barbara Rochford of Naples; three daughters from his first marriage, Patricia Gehlen of Jacksonville, Fla., Kathleen Hammock of Naples, and Kelly Hamlin of Wildwood Crest, N.J.; a sister; 10 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

Mr. McEntee’s retirement coincided with an effort among Republicans, notably former governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, to severely curtail the influence and power of public-sector unions. For Mr. McEntee, they remained as essential as ever.

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“I’ve always believed that public workers deserve a voice,” he told National Journal in 2011. “There’s a price to pay when you turn your back on the middle class: Working families will rise up and organize and make our voices heard.”