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labor A Power Broker Who Wants Labor at the Table, Not on the Menu

lee Saunders, President of the 1.6 million American Federation of State, County and Municipal Workers is not only a major leader in the AFL-CIO, but one of the prime supporters of Secretary Hillary Clinton.

WASHINGTON — The person at the center of defusing arguably the most contentious issue facing Democrats on the eve of their convention in Philadelphia was not a Hillary Clinton adviser or even a party operative. It was Lee Saunders, president of the 1.6-million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

With aides to Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont threatening a floor fight over the issue of trade, President Obama still hoping to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the 12-nation trade pact his administration negotiated, and Mrs. Clinton caught in the middle, Mr. Saunders led the effort to broker a final compromise.

The Democratic platform would stay silent on the prospect of a T.P.P. vote in Congress, which the Sandernistas had sought to rule out, but “oppose trade agreements that do not support good American jobs, raise wages and improve our national security.”

Senator Sanders’s staff deemed the language strong enough to avoid a floor debate, if not strong enough for their liking. The change helped save Mrs. Clinton much stress on an issue that has helped propel Donald J. Trump among white working-class voters in key states like Ohio and Pennsylvania.

At a time when Afscme and other public sector unions have come under relentless pressure from conservative activists and politicians — “probably the most perilous moment the public sector labor movement has faced since its emergence in the ’60s and ’70s,” said Joseph A. McCartin, a labor historian at Georgetown University — Mr. Saunders is emerging as an increasingly important Washington power broker.

His union’s support for Mrs. Clinton during the Democratic primaries, especially in Iowa, proved crucial to helping her win the nomination. Mr. Saunders is one of the architects of a new “super PAC” seeded with tens of millions of dollars from unions and the wealthy environmentalist Tom Steyer that aims to help elect progressive candidates this fall and in the future.

“We talked for a long period of time about how to work together to build a stronger progressive coalition,” said Mr. Steyer, adding that he had hosted Mr. Saunders and his wife at his San Francisco home and found him to be “a lot of fun to be around.”

Notwithstanding Mr. Saunders’s opposition to the president’s trade agenda, top administration officials regularly solicit his input on economic policy. “Lee is a great friend of the president’s and a great friend of mine,” said Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Mr. Obama, by email. The president has even been known to quote Mr. Saunders. “He was very taken with Lee’s observation that if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” said Thomas E. Perez, the labor secretary.

Yet for public sector unions, which count just over one-third of government workers as members, Washington influence may no longer have the same currency it did in earlier decades. Governors in states like Wisconsin, Ohio and Illinois have sought to scale back the public unions’ right to bargain for increases in benefits and, in some cases, wages. Groups financed by right-wing donors have brought a hail of lawsuits threatening the unions’ ability to finance themselves through mandatory fees on workers.

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Such is the climate that public unions now worry about suffering the same debilitating bleed as private sector unions, whose membership has dwindled from about 25 percent of workers in the early 1970s to under 7 percent today.

If Mrs. Clinton wins this fall, Mr. Saunders may gain an even closer ally in the Oval Office. Certainly the Supreme Court would be more favorable than under a President Trump. But given that some of the greatest threats to public unions emanate far from Washington, is someone best known for navigating the city’s corridors of power their most promising savior?

On an unseasonably cold afternoon in May, Mr. Saunders was seated next to a bank of tables at a child services facility in Cleveland when one of the workers listening to him discourse on their union piped up suddenly: “I have no idea who you are. Can you introduce yourself?”

If you happen to run one of the largest organizations in the country, you might be tempted to respond to such a question with thinly concealed annoyance. Mr. Saunders’s immediate predecessor, Gerald W. McEntee, who built the union into a Washington force during his three decades as president, was famous for such outbursts.

Instead, Mr. Saunders played the situation for laughs. “You don’t know who I am?” he said in mock outrage. Then he deadpanned: “I’m thinking about joining the union. I wanted to hear from you guys as far as why I should do it.”

It is hardly the only way Mr. Saunders differs from his immediate predecessor.

Mr. McEntee alienated members with his heavy-handed decision-making — including ramming through a 2007 endorsement of Mrs. Clinton for president even though many senior officials thought Mr. Obama deserved more time to make his case — and nursed blood feuds with rival unions.

Above all, longtime Afscme officials say, Mr. McEntee grew less interested in nurturing his rank-and-file members, preferring to build the union’s power mostly through political spending. A former aide challenged that view, however, saying Mr. McEntee cared about cultivating the grass roots, but the urgency simply was not as great until the last few years.

When Mr. Saunders ran for secretary-treasurer, the union’s second-ranking position, in 2010, his association with Mr. McEntee — for whom he had worked since the 1980s, ultimately rising to become a top aide — aroused intense suspicion. He eked out a victory by 4,000 votes out of more than a million cast, then won a fairly close race to succeed Mr. McEntee upon his retirement in 2012. He was re-elected by acclamation last week.

But almost from the moment he won that second election, Mr. Saunders made a point of distinguishing himself from his predecessor. He put former dissidents on crucial committees and began a rapprochement with the Service Employees International Union, Mr. McEntee’s onetime nemesi

Most significant has been his attention to the rank and file, which includes people as diverse as school cafeteria workers to corrections officers.

In late 2014, he started Afscme Strong, an effort to have union officials and activists conduct open-ended conversations with one million members, the better to create a sense of belonging and to gin up local activism for facing down employers or participating in local political and legislative campaigns.

It is an ambitious undertaking, requiring an investment of millions of dollars. But labor experts say building such cohesion is essential in an era where public sector unions are under assault by politicians like Wisconsin’s Republican governor, Scott Walker.

Shortly after Mr. Walker started his campaign against public unions in 2011, some Madison-area labor leaders realized their options for responding, for example, with a strike, were limited because many public-sector unions in the state had grown so remote from their members they were barely in touch with them.

“You’d have to have an activate-able — if that’s a word — rank and file,” said Harry Richardson, a longtime labor activist and member of the Afscme local in Madison. “And that just didn’t exist.”

Mr. Saunders’s new program is already paying dividends in this regard. According to Ben Gordon, the organizing director of the Afscme affiliate in upstate New York, the affiliate is seeing an increase in activism among its members. “We’ve had big rallies, done smaller work-site meetings, turned it into a way to settle contracts that have been open for a while in a difficult negotiation,” Mr. Gordon said.

In late 1998, Mr. McEntee dispatched Mr. Saunders to New York City to become the administrator of District Council 37, the umbrella body for 56 locals in the city with about 120,000 members. Several leaders of the council and the local unions were on the verge of being indicted on charges of taking kickbacks and embezzlement totaling millions of dollars, and fixing a vote on a contract with the city.

Though Mr. Saunders’s first priority was to root out corruption, which he accomplished swiftly, his most impressive achievement may have been helping to turn out tens of thousands of municipal workers and community activists in a protest against Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Gov. George E. Pataki in the spring of 1999.

Afscme officials insist the roughly 4 percent annual pay increases he later negotiated would never have been possible had Mr. Saunders not mobilized his members. “The mayor understood what the mayor needed to understand, that we would not deal from a position of weakness but a position of strength,” said Eliot Seide, Mr. Saunders’s No. 2 at the council.

And yet, for all his obvious faith in grass-roots activism, Mr. Saunders remains very much an institutionalist, at ease working within the system.

Even the enormous 1999 demonstration reflected a certain established protocol. “It did not annoy us — demonstrations are part of the fabric of the city of New York,” said Robert M. Harding, a deputy mayor at the time. To this day, Mr. Harding keeps a photo in his office of himself flanked by Mr. Saunders and Mayor Giuliani announcing their contract.

“Maybe I wouldn’t call myself a bomb thrower, but I would call myself someone who wants to effectuate change,” Mr. Saunders said when asked about his method. “I’m willing to go about doing it through a strategy that I feel most comfortable with. And that’s walking with crowds, but it’s also talking with very, very important people.”

Much of Mr. Saunders’s time in Washington has played out in similar fashion, revealing a man whose goals are strongly progressive but who, even if he doesn’t defer to the powers that be, shies away from making life too uncomfortable for them.

When I asked whether his intervention had undermined liberals’ last best hope of defeating T.P.P., Mr. Saunders said the language he proposed included “the strongest standards” a Democratic platform has ever endorsed on trade. He argued that if the president wants to send the Pacific trade deal to Congress between the election and next year’s inauguration, no party platform would stop him.

Likewise for some of Mr. Saunders’s efforts to reinvigorate his union. In addition to its more open-ended outreach to members, the union had a market research firm spend several months last year canvassing them through surveys, focus groups and up-close observation, then asked the Washington firm GMMB to translate the findings into a branding effort, known as the “Never Quit” campaign.

One crucial insight was that Afscme members want to be treated as individuals, not part of some undifferentiated mass of workers. The union, at GMMB’s recommendation, developed an award program to recognize workers’ commitment to their job.

It seemed a reasonable response to an important insight. And yet it was suspiciously Washington-centric: poll-generated, a bit jargon-laden. Jerry Wurf, the leader who arguably did more than anyone else to forge Afscme into its modern form, was famous for inspiring workers to embrace radical means, even striking illegally. It’s a long way from illegal strikes to performance prizes.

Which, in the end, brings the story back to Wisconsin.

To the Madison-area leaders who advocated responding to Governor Walker with a strike, the mere absence of a more cohesive organization did not, by itself, mean the unions had no hope of pulling it off. Labor leaders could have harnessed the energy of the more than 50,000 people protesting in the streets, the strike advocates said, but many state leaders lacked the fortitude to try.

“Who knows what could have snowballed if we could have had a one- or two-day walkout,” said Mr. Richardson, the Madison activist. “If it had been heavy in some key sectors, it would not have had to be many people. If some prison guards walk out.”

Rick Badger, a state-level Afscme official, said union leaders believed they stood a better chance of recalling Mr. Walker and Republican legislators than unifying their diverse membership behind a strike, which could have undermined those efforts, and they expected the courts to overturn Governor Walker’s legislation.

Mr. Saunders has begun to address one huge vulnerability for public sector unions — the weakness of members’ personal ties to one another and their leaders. But would he rally his members for a fight that could go disastrously wrong, even if it were the only thing that could save them?

Under Mr. Wurf, union officials sometimes calculated that even though the public may initially hate their members if they stopped collecting garbage or manning nursing homes, as a strike went on, voters would begin to hate the politicians even more.

Would Mr. Saunders, at a moment of reckoning, ever embrace that radical strategy?

“I don’t know, I’m not a fortune teller,” he responded when I asked about the possibility of a statewide strike in Wisconsin. “Maybe it could have been successful. It’s just not that simple.”