LOS ANGELES -- The nation's largest union of government workers chose a new leader on Thursday as its members grapple with efforts around the country to weaken labor rights or cut public employee pensions and benefits.
Lee Saunders was elected president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. He had been the union's No. 2 official and becomes its first African- American president.
Saunders takes over from Gerald McEntee, the legendary leader who over 31 years built the union into a political powerhouse that regularly spends more than any other to help Democrats win office.
Saunders' victory over rival Danny Donohue with 54 percent of the vote is likely good news for Democrats who hope the union keeps up its massive political program. Donohue, leader of the union's largest local in New York, ran as a reform candidate promising to cut back the largesse devoted to national politics and spend more resources on building up local offices.
The contentious race was largely a referendum on which candidate was better positioned to lead the union through difficult times for public workers.
State and local governments have laid off thousands of workers to save money, pushed measures that curb bargaining rights or banned the automatic deduction of union dues in paychecks.
The election at the Los Angeles Convention Center took place just two weeks after unions suffered a major setback in Wisconsin when they failed to recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker. The governor has won plaudits in other states where some GOP officials want to make a similar push against unions.
The union has about 1.3 million active members, including nurses, snow plow drivers, sanitation workers and correction officers. But it has struggled in recent years, losing about 10 percent of its ranks since 2009.
Saunders pledged to mobilize members to better promote the work public servants do as a way to counter those who seek to balance state budgets at their expense.
"We know that Wall Street and their allies are engaged in an all-out assault against our members and the services we provide," Saunders said. "They know that AFSCME stands in the way of their efforts to destroy the middle class."
Donohue said he wanted to focus more resources on mobilizing members and less on national Democratic elections. He blamed McEntee for creating a culture of "checkbook unionism" that too often bankrolled candidates without tending to the union's base.
The union is expected to spend about $100 million this year to help re-elect President Barack Obama and boost dozens of other Democrats running at the state and local levels.