LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The country's largest union of state and local government employees, which faces big challenges to members' jobs, benefits and bargaining rights, elected Lee Saunders on Thursday as its first new president in 31 years.
Saunders, the union's current secretary treasurer, will be sworn in on Monday to succeed longtime President Gerald McEntee as head of the 1.6 million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. He will be the first African-American to lead the 75-year-old union.
Earlier this month, Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker survived an AFSCME-financed effort to recall him after he pushed through limits on public workers' rights to collective bargaining.
Analysts have said Walker's win could embolden Republican governors in other states to take on public-sector unions.
"We are energized and ready for the battles ahead," Saunders said in a statement.
Saunders, who pledged to build union membership and throw its support behind the re-election of Democratic President Barack Obama, defeated Danny Donohue, president of the largest branch of AFSCME in New York, the union said.
The election at AFSCME's convention in Los Angeles was hotly contested, with Donohue supporters saying they were pushed to the sidelines and unable to present their candidate's point of view in general meetings.
In conceding, Donohue said the union's resources "should be devoted to winning the fight on the ground in battlegrounds" and that AFSCME should unify behind Saunders.
(Reporting by Lisa Lambert and James B. Kelleher; Editing by Peter Cooney)