New union chief sets tough tone for public employees

States and cities may face a year of hard bargaining with the million-member American Federation of State, County, and Municpal Employees Union (AFSCME). The union's new president, Gerald W. McEntee, warns that he recognizes the financial plight of public employers, but he will not negotiate reductions on salaries and benefits.

''We are not in the business of give-backs,'' Mr. McEntee said shortly after winning the presidency of AFSCME by a narrow margin on Dec. 17. ''We will bargain tough for our members.''

McEntee, a native of Philadelphia with an economics degree from La Salle College and active in the union since 1958, becomes at age 46 one of the youngest presidents of a major union. He was elected to fill the late Jerry Wurf's unexpired term. Mr. Wurf passed on Dec. 10 after 17 years as head of AFSCME. During Wurf's tenure, the union burgeoned to a membership four to five times what it was when he took over.

McEntee has opportunities to lead the union into further growth: only 1 million of 16 million municipal workers belong to AFSCME.

The new president, who has pledged to follow Wurf's policies, defeated William Lucy, the union's secretary-treasurer and one of the nation's most important black labor leaders.

Victor Gotbaum, powerful head of New York City's municipal workers, withdrew from the election to be able to concentrate on critical bargaining with the city beginning early in the new year.

New York City's negotiations will be watched nationally. The National League of Cities (NLC), which met recently in Detroit, heard blunt warnings that cities must brace for tough negotiations with muncipal employees - and must be prepared for strikes.

A study presented during the conference showed 5,934 strikes by government workers nationally in 1980 and a 75 percent increase in the number of work days lost to walkouts from 1979 to 1980. The average length of public employee strikes was about 12 days.

Strikes have continued to present major problems this year, largely as a result of declining city revenues, growing public resistance to tax increases, and the example of President Reagan's tough stance on the air traffic controllers' strike. Moreover, the NLC was told by its experts to ''be prepared for and expect the worst from unions next year.''

With a new president at the head of AFSCME, the bargaining outlook could become even tougher. While Wurf adamantly opposed bargaining that could lead to reduced earnings and benefits, his support within the union was solid enough to enable him to propose moderation in union demands and settlements if necessary.

McEntee could find that harder to do. He is filling an unexpired term that runs into 1984. He cannot easily take an elder statesman position in favor of moderation and still pick up the internal union backing he wants - and doubtless will need - for election to a full term in the $105,000-a-year office. Blacks in AFSCME are expected to push Mr. Lucy to seek the presidency again, and Mr. Gotbaum must be considered a serious challenge for the presidency.

In the year ahead, McEntee's position is expected to reflect that outlined by Wurf in his last major speech in Washington Nov. 6.

In explaining why public employees cannot be expected to let wages and salaries be rolled back, as many local government officials suggest, Wurf said: ''Most members don't make a lot of money, and they earn it most often by carrying out all the mean and dirty chores needed to make a city or a state operate. . . . A city wouldn't last 10 minutes without such services.''

That can be expected to be the theme in the bargaining ahead in 1982.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.