June 10, 2012; Source: KFVS (Associated Press)

Let’s not forget that labor unions are an important part of the 501(c) universe, generally operating as 501(c)(5) tax-exempt organizations. Just like nonprofits, unions are assessing and reassessing their strategies for achieving their goals. In the wake of the unsuccessful recall of Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin, the internal and external debate about how unions can and should promote their aims in the public arena has intensified.

The Associated Press has a story describing the competition to succeed Gerald McEntee as head of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). McEntee is retiring after 31 years at the union’s helm.

McEntee’s preferred candidate, AFSCME Secretary-Treasurer Lee Saunders, will face off against Danny Donohue, the AFSCME leader in New York State, but the issue isn’t personality, but union strategy. Donohue seems to be focusing on McEntee’s and AFSCME’s spending on political campaigns, including its commitment this spring to unseating Walker and its plan to spend $100 million—according to AP, more than any other union—to support President Obama’s reelection and the campaigns of other pro-labor candidates around the nation.

Donohue has said that the McEntee strategy is “checkbook unionism,” “trying to throw money at problems…instead of…galvaniz(ing) our members.” Sounding like a critical corporate shareholder at a corporate board meeting, the AP reports that Donohue “claims the union doesn’t share enough information with members about how their political money is spent,” suggesting too much of the union’s focus is on Washington and big expenditures against Romney during the Republican primaries. McEntee and Saunders strenuously object.

Part of the issue is AFSCME’s declining membership, down to about 1.315 million active members (excluding retirees) as of February this year. The Wall Street Journal actually reported that AFSCME’s membership declined 45 percent between March 2011 and March 2012. Despite AFSCME’s consistently declining membership rolls, McEntee and Saunders are well paid: for 2011, McEntee received $387,671 and Saunders received $310,137. Donohue said he’ll cut the president’s salary by $100,000 if he wins on June 20th.

This sounds much like the “Change to Win” efforts of unions several years ago, an initiative emphasizing more organizing to build and retain union memberships in opposition to what the participating unions saw as the AFL-CIO’s insufficient focus on organizing campaigns. Since its formation, Change to Win has suffered some unions leaving the fold, with membership today down to five major unions: the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the Service Employees International Union, the United Farm Workers of America, and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

Isn’t this intra-labor debate a bit like the tension between the Beltway nonprofits, focused on Capitol Hill lobbying, and grassroots nonprofits that believe that strengthening their infrastructure and membership is more important?—Rick Cohen