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At celebration of life ceremony, tributes pour in for Jerry McEntee

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks as AFSCME President Lee Saunders and President Bill Clinton look on. Photo By: Trevaughn Smith
By Pete Levine ·
Tags: Our Stories

The tributes to late AFSCME President Emeritus Jerry McEntee came from a current president and a past president, a former secretary of state, the speaker of the House of Representatives, a cabinet member and a senator, and from beloved leaders of the AFSCME family and from the McEntee family.

They all described McEntee, who led AFSCME for 31 years through historic growth and who died this summer at the age of 87, as a fearless fighter not only for AFSCME members but for all working families. They described a man of great humor and gregariousness; a figure who could be tough and uncompromising yet loving and loyal to his allies, friends and family; and a giant in the American labor movement.

AFSCME President Lee Saunders, who led Tuesday’s celebration of McEntee’s life at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., described his predecessor as a tenacious organizer, a shrewd political mind, and as a mentor and friend.

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Photo By: Leslie Jean

“Other than his love for his family, there was nothing Jerry was more passionate about than the struggle to help working families – especially those who worked in public service – live with greater dignity and security. He was a fearless, fearsome, ferocious advocate for AFSCME members. He spoke truth to power,” Saunders said.

Saunders also described how McEntee never strayed far from his roots.

“No matter how powerful and influential Jerry became, he never stopped being a working-class guy from Philadelphia’s Swampoodle neighborhood. He learned union values from the cradle, as the son of Bill McEntee, a city sanitation worker who helped found AFSCME District Council 33. He was as comfortable shooting the breeze with AFSCME members at a worksite as he was with heads of state and VIPs.”

A voice for working families – in the White House and on the Hill

In a videotaped tribute, President Joe Biden said of McEntee: “He built AFSCME into one of the greatest political organizations in America. Jerry never backed down. We worked together to pass some of the most important protections for working people: the Family Medical Leave Act, the Fair Pay Act, the Affordable Care Act, and so much more. Jerry knew what I knew: public workers carry this country forward. He’d say people come and go, but this union endures. All of us can agree: Jerry’s going to endure in the heart and soul of AFSCME workers as long as this wonderful organization exists.”

Former President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton both shared candid, fond memories of McEntee, who supported both of them early in their political careers – first, when then-Gov. Bill Clinton was mounting his nascent presidential bid and later, when McEntee and others encouraged then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton to run for an open New York Senate seat.

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Photo By: Leslie Jean

“I’m not sure I could’ve been elected president without Jerry McEntee,” President Clinton recalled. “Jerry took a flying leap with me.”

President Clinton, who noted he had been a card-carrying AFSCME member, sought AFSCME’s endorsement as he got his presidential campaign off the ground, though he admitted he’d been intimidated by McEntee.

“I was as nervous as a cat,” he said.

His bid, which many thought was a longshot at the time, would prove a success, and among the victories the two would enjoy together would be the passage of the Family Medical Leave Act, which President Clinton noted had been vetoed twice before he signed it into law.

President Clinton said McEntee’s tough exterior was really a disguise “to make us think, to make us feel, and make us love … and it meant the world to one guy who was one of only two governors of small states ever to be elected president.”

Secretary of State Clinton said McEntee was “a historic labor leader, but he was truly one of the great American leaders of the 20th and 21st centuries.”

She also noted that McEntee was “a supporter of women,” and held the “conviction that women deserved to have a seat at any table, anywhere.”

McEntee later partnered with then-Sen. Clinton in the fight against the Bush administration’s attempts to privatize Social Security.

“Jerry was an advisor, a supporter and a constructive critic at times. Jerry was with you in good times and bad,” Secretary Clinton said.

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Photo By: Leslie Jean

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi recalled: “On Capitol Hill, Jerry was a force. He was a fiercely loyal ally. He organized neighbor to neighbor, not stranger to stranger. He was values-based and knew his purpose: advancing working families.”

Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack also shared stories of McEntee’s support and doggedness in fighting for AFSCME members.

A loyal labor ally

Members of the AFSCME family, including former Secretary-Treasurer Bill Lucy and former AFSCME organizer and area director for California, Arlene Holt Baker, who would later go on to serve as executive vice president of the AFL-CIO, recalled the ways in which McEntee would shape AFSCME and the labor movement.

 “Through aggressive organizing, successful mergers and affiliations, he grew our membership dramatically. He increased our power and influence locally and nationally,” Lucy said in a videotaped message. “Jerry totally believed that our union and our movement should remain on the cutting edge of change. He believed we had to be in the struggle for human rights, civil rights and social justice.”

Holt Baker recalled McEntee’s “larger than life” personal approach to mobilizing voters and to rallying crowds at AFSCME conventions and political conventions.

“Jerry McEntee’s imprint will forever be left on the history of the labor movement – and the changes he and (former AFL-CIO President) John Sweeney and others knew were needed to diversify our movement at every level are evidenced in today’s history-making labor movement leadership,” Holt Baker said.

Ed Keller, who succeeded McEntee as executive director of AFSCME Council 13 in Pennsylvania when McEntee took the helm of the international union, recalled how McEntee fought to pass a law in Pennsylvania recognizing public employees and his tenacity in organizing workers there.

“In the history books of the American labor movement, you have John L. Lewis from the mine workers. You have Walter Reuther from the autoworkers. And there is a new name that has to be entered in … Jerry McEntee,” Keller said.

Liz Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO; Jimmy Williams, IUPAT general president emeritus and Ernest Garrett, president of AFSCME District Council 33, also described McEntee’s influence and friendship.

“To us, he was Superman”

The most powerful tribute to McEntee came from his family.

Kathy McEntee Hammock, the second oldest of McEntee’s four daughters, said, “He was the ultimate ‘girl-dad.’ To us, he was Superman. He was our rock and he was our hero.”

McEntee Hammock added, “He was a fantastic husband, married to the love of his life, Barbara.”

McEntee, she said, was “a ham. He loved to entertain.” He would do so by donning various costumes, including that of an Easter bunny, which, she said, became a favorite among McEntee’s kids, grandkids and great-grandkids.

“He was a teacher,” she said. “He taught us how to ice skate, drive a car … catch crabs. How to treat people with respect, how to be kind and show grace … and he taught us to be humble, never forgetting his roots.”

Also in attendance at the Kennedy Center were former colleagues and friends of McEntee, who joined the speakers in wishing McEntee rest – in peace and in power.

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