By Lisa Lambert and James B. Kelleher
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - As America's biggest state and local government employees' union gathered here this week, it faced obstacles like never before. After a big defeat in Wisconsin, and under pressure to accept cuts in jobs, pay, pensions and benefits, it needed to give convincing answers.
Lee Saunders, who became the union's first African American president on Friday, said the fight was "just getting started." He said the mission for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees was to save nothing less than organized labor itself.
"Our success or failure will mark a turning point not only for our union but for the entire labor movement," said Saunders, the former number two who succeeded Gerald McEntee as president of the union, the largest in the AFL-CIO federation.
The union had one of its darkest days on June 5 in Wisconsin, where voters rejected a union-led effort to recall the state's governor, Republican Scott Walker, who had tried to curtail the bargaining rights of public sector employees.
But the 3,500 delegates who came to Los Angeles to mark AFSCME's 75th anniversary and elect its first new president in 31 years, left the meeting grimly determined to do more than just reverse their union's recent setbacks.
"The state is taking money that it should have paid into my retirement but didn't, and it's giving it away in tax breaks to corporations," said Steve Curran, a corrections officer from Connecticut.
Taxpayers have seen drastic cuts in public services after an economic downturn and support for public workers is waning.
Even some Democrats, like Steve Rattner, the former head of the U.S. government's auto task force who currently manages the personal investments of New York City's mayor Michael Bloomberg, think public sector workers need to share more of the pain from the downturn and slow-motion recovery.
"Their private sector counterparts have taken major pain as part of this economic downturn and they have for the most part not taken any," Rattner said.
"But they're going to have to take some pain and I think there ought to be a way to do it peacefully and fairly."
The crossing guards, snow-plow operators and librarians who make up the membership of the AFSCME pushed back during their convention this week.
"We've been demonized as the people who have it all," said Roberta Lynch, deputy director of AFSCME's Council 31, which represents state workers in Illinois.
While public workers have not seen the wage declines experienced by some in the private sector, they have lost jobs dramatically over the past three years, according to the Labor Department.
The perception is "almost as if the unions are drinking champagne while others are suffering," said Harley Shaiken, a professor at University of California Berkeley. "It's just the opposite. Public sector work is remarkably insecure in this environment and tough concessions have been made."
According to AFSCME, its members have an average salary of $40,000 a year and collect a pension of about $19,000 a year in retirement. These figures are virtually impossible to compare to those of the private sector given the wide mix of skills and education.
Members blame states for short changing contributions to their workers' pension funds, especially during the 2007-2009 recession. "The pension funds aren't going down the tubes because you're paying a retiree his $800 or $1,000 a month," said Curran, the Connecticut corrections officer.
"It's because the politicians are not putting in the money they're supposed to be putting in."
Union leaders recognize that they need a swing in popular opinion. After the convention, members plan a steady campaign to tell their neighbors they have deep roots in their communities, provide essential services and pay taxes, too.
In introducing Vice President Joe Biden to the convention on Tuesday, outgoing president McEntee said endorsing Obama "was an easy decision" for the union, mostly because there are no alternatives.
"President Obama and Vice President Biden are the only choice for the 99 percent of us," he said.
Ricky Feller, AFSCME's associate political director, said the union will spend $100 million between now and November on political races and get out the vote efforts across the country.
(Reporting By Lisa Lambert and James Kelleher; editing by Todd Eastham)