Progressive Champion Lee Saunders: “Disrupter” For Working People

Isaiah J. Poole

When Lee Saunders talks about his mission as the president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, he often refers to the fateful 1968 showdown between sanitation workers and the city of Memphis – the strike that brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the place where he would be assassinated.

Saunders evokes the memory of those workers who were members of AFSCME Local 1733. “These men, who were poor and black, upset the social order merely by starting a union,” he says, and by doing so and by striking for better pay and benefits, “gained the voice, the dignity, the respect they had struggled for.”

“It’s time for you to be disrupters, just as they were,” he tells college students at his frequent lectures.

A disrupter on behalf of working-class people is an apt description of Saunders, not only as the chief of a large public employee union but as a leading voice in the progressive movement. The Campaign for America’s Future will celebrate his inspired leadership by presenting him with a Progressive Champion Award during its 2014 Awards Gala October 14 at the Arena Stage in Washington.

“We Have To Be Organized To Fight Back”

When Saunders was elected in 2012 to head AFSCME, he promised to increase membership and, according to a New York Times report, to help AFSCME become more “politically influential and effective at resisting concessions on pay and pensions.”

“There are a lot of people out there who want to hurt this union and who want to hurt you,” he said. “We have to be organized to fight back.”

Saunders understood from the start that the 1.6 million members of AFSCME could not fight alone. He pushed to build coalitions, and rose to lead the progressive response to the economic challenges facing all workers.

Saunders and AFSCME have helped launch numerous progressive coalitions and organizations, including Health Care for America Now!, Jobs With Justice, Progressive States Network and Americans for Tax Fairness. He also serves as president of Working America, chairman of the board of Americans United for Change, an at-large member of the Democratic Party National Committee, vice president of the AFL-CIO Executive Council and chair of its political committee. He is also treasurer of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and on the board of the National Action Network.

Union Roots

Saunders grew up in a union household in Cleveland, Ohio. His father, a bus driver, was a member of the Amalgamated Transit Union. After receiving his Master of Arts degree from Ohio State University, he went to work for the Ohio Bureau of Employment Services and joined the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association in 1975, which at that time was one of the nation’s largest public employee labor units. Saunders arrived as the association was in a fierce battle with then-Gov. James Rhodes over getting collective bargaining rights.

Saunders joined AFSCME as a labor economist in 1978 and over more than three decades assumed a number of roles, including administrator of AFSCME Council 37 in New York, New York City’s largest union. He became AFSCME’s secretary-treasurer in 2010.

Buckeye Battle

After the conservative surge in 2010, AFSCME members found themselves under attack by right-wing governors and legislators in states across the country. Conservatives in the Ohio legislature introduced the anti-union “Senate Bill 5,” which would gut the right of public employees to collectively bargain if voters approved it in a referendum. Saunders went to Ohio to fire up the opposition.

“This is about who we are as a country, and what we are about,” he said at a March 2011 rally in Cleveland. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I want to live in a country that wants to move wages downward, rather than increase wages upward.” He called on activists to “raise our voices like never before.”

They did, and in November voters soundly rejected Senate Bill 5 by a vote of 61 percent to 39 percent.

The next year, Saunders was in Wisconsin, helping to push a recall effort against its right-wing governor Scott Walker, who also had moved to undermine public employee rights. Walker survived, but as Saunders and his predecessor as president, Gerald McEntee, wrote, “Wisconsin’s working families sent a loud and clear message to anti-worker governors, and their shady corporate backers: Efforts to destroy the rights of workers, and our ability to have a voice on the job, will not go unchallenged.”

“Dead-Ass Wrong”

When the city of Detroit was forced into bankruptcy and put under the control of an emergency manager, Saunders took a firm stand against the idea that retired public employees would pay the price for decisions they had no hand in making. “The only thing we can do is challenge this ruling legally and question the morality of attacking pensions that have been earned by these workers,” he said at the time. “Pensions in Detroit average $19,000 a year, and there is a good possibility that they will be reduced. That is dead-ass wrong and morally corrupt.”

In the end, public employees ended up agreeing to some pension cuts, but AFSCME was able to limit the damage that would have been done if the state’s conservative lawmakers and the city’s bondholders had their way.

Impassioned in defense of his members, Saunders is also powerfully on the offensive for working people everywhere, driving the effort to lift the minimum wage, to guarantee sick days and paid family leave, to revive the right to organize and bargain collectively, to insist that the rich and corporations pay their fair share of taxes, to insure that every child has a world-class education.

“The sanitation workers of Local 1733 demanded respect with ‘the fierce urgency of now,'” he said in one of his college speeches. “It’s because of what they did back then that I’m convinced we can do great things right now. As Dr. King said, ‘This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.'”

In Dr. King’s tradition, Lee Saunders is a drum major for justice.

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