Barack, Hillary and the Philadelphia labor movement

Need yet another political story today with the Democratic convention in full swing? Here's one from a time just four years ago, when there was a true battle for the Presidency between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama that featured two labor leaders butting heads in Philadelphia. 

Both candidates, of course, wanted to court the labor vote, particularly in Pennsylvania,  which was considered pivotal to the ambitions of both Obama and Clinton. Philadelphia union leader Henry Nicholas took it as an honor to introduce Barack Obama, then vying for the Democratic party's presidential nod, to his fellow union leaders at a convention of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO in Philadelphia back in 2008.

Unfortunately for Nicholas, his boss, sitting in the back of the ballroom at the hotel now known as the Sheraton Downtown, didn't agree. "He was going like this," Nicholas said, making a cutting motion across his neck. Nicholas told me this story while I was interviewing him for a profile, which the Inquirer published on Labor Day.

His boss was Gerry McEntee, the now retired head of AFSCME, who has been considered something of a king maker in the world of politics. He earned that reputation by his early backing of President Bill Clinton. McEntee supported Hillary Clinton over Obama and wanted his union to line up 100 percent behind her. In fact, McEntee introduced Clinton to the same crowd at the same Pennsylvania AFL-CIO convention.

Just a little background here: AFSCME, one of the nation's largest labor unions, represents public workers and has always been an active player in the intersection of unions and politics. McEntee entered the union world through his father, who represented public service workers in Philadelphia. Henry Nicholas is the president of the National Union of Hospital and Healthcare Employees, a national union which is a division of AFSCME. He also is president of District 1199C which counts as its members many hospital and nursing home workers in Philadelphia.

The two have a relationship that can most generously be described as complicated. Acrimonious might be another word. It didn't help that Nicholas, who had never endorsed Edward Rendell as mayor, backed him unequivocally for governor. McEntee wanted Bob Casey, now a U.S. Senator. 

Nicholas' union has long links to the civil rights movement, so it wasn't surprising that the union backed Obama. "I paid the ultimate price," Nicholas said. 

Gail Lopez-Henriquez, who represents District 1199C describes what happened next, starting first with a little background. During the Clinton administration, she said, Nicholas traveled to California and organized home care workers into his union -- the number varies between 60,000 and 80,000. A little later, the group flirted with an AFSCME rival union, the SEIU. In response, AFSCME, as the international, put the union into trusteeship, with Nicholas' approval.

After the Obama endorsement, Nicholas said, he was moved out of leadership of that group, which had the effect of cutting the membership of NUHHCE by more than half, to 42,000. Of the 42,000, 11,358 are members of the Philadelphia-based District 1199C.

"The day he [McEntee] retired, I went up on stage and shook his hand. I told him, 'I wish you the best of health in your retirement. You're a rascal, and I'm glad your gone,' " Nicholas said.  

I asked AFSCME for a response to this ... so far I haven't heard anything. When I do, I'll update this post.

By the way, both AFSCME and NUCCHE have endorsed Obama this time.

Tomorrow: Succession planning. Is Henry ever going to die?