The likely successor to AFSCME President Gerald McEntee pledged on Thursday to continue and even accelerate the union's mission to primary those Democrats who don't vote in line with labor's interests.
"I think we have to play in the political arena, make no mistake about it. It is so important for us, at the federal level, to move Congress and Capitol Hill," said Lee Saunders, who on Thursday was elected Secretary-Treasurer of the 1.6 million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
"We are going to hold these politicians more accountable," he added. "Too many times we have elected folks, given them resources, knocked on doors, made phone calls and, all of a sudden, they get amnesia about who we are. That's unacceptable. That is unacceptable."
Coming weeks after unions -- AFSCME included -- were chastised by the White House for spending $5 million on an effort to defeat Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Saunders's comments are a sign that Big Labor remains very much committed to putting resources behind primary election challenges, regardless of what the Democratic Party apparatus demands.
In an interview with the Huffington Post, Saunders refused to speculate that he would ascend to the post of AFSCME president once McEntee steps down from the post. But his victory on Thursday puts him squarely in line for the position -- which would, in turn, make him one of the most powerful labor officials in the country.
McEntee himself has been a fiery and combative force on the political landscape for years. The longtime labor leader was a vocal backer of then-Senator Hillary Clinton during the Democratic presidential primary. Under the Obama administration, he has forcefully pushed labor's legislative agenda in addition to spending heavily in several election contests -- oftentimes with great frustration and fireworks. When the White House accused unions of flushing their $5 million down the toilet in backing Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, McEntee offered one of the more acidic responses.
"We worked like hell to get the Senate and we worked like hell to get the White House, and our people are saying, 'What the hell are we getting out of this?'" he said.
Saunders, who has been a longtime McEntee protégé -- having served as his executive assistant prior to Thursday's election -- indicated that there was little distance between him and the AFSCME president on this front. In addition to calling on the Obama administration to use the "bully pulpit to move a progressive agenda," he made clear that he won't be taking directives from the president's political team.
"We are not controlled and we are not a subset of the White House," he said. "We are an independent union and we are going to make independent decisions based upon what is best for our members and we strongly believed we needed to go after her. And we will go after other Democrats and we are going to be smart about it... our members expect no less."