Lee Saunders

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The nation’s largest union of government workers has chosen a new leader as its members grapple with efforts around the country to weaken labor rights or cut public employee pensions and benefits.

Lee Saunders was elected president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. He had been the union’s No. 2 official and becomes its first African-American president.

Saunders takes over from Gerald McEntee, the legendary leader who over 31 years built the union into a political powerhouse. Saunders says he wants to mobilize members to better promote the work that public servants do. The union has about 1.3 million active members, but has lost about 10 percent of its ranks since 2009.

Saunders defeated rival Danny Donohue with 54 percent of the vote.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.