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.
Those sanitation workers were members of AFSCME Local 1733, and in a recent talk at Penn State University, he evoked their memory. “These men, who were poor and black, upset the social order merely by starting a union,” he said, 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 told the college audience.
Being a disrupter on behalf of working-class people is an apt description of the work that Saunders is doing, not only as the chief of a large public employee union but as a leading voice in the progressive movement. His leadership across a broad range of issues is the reason why the Campaign for America’s Future is honoring him with a Progressive Champion Award at its 2014 Awards Gala.
“We Have To Be Organized To Fight Back”
When Saunders was elected in 2013 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.”
It is a big enough job to handle the day-to-day struggles of AFSCME as it represents 1.6 million members working in tens of thousands of state and local government agencies. But Saunders has over the years loaded up his portfolio with a broad range of commitments that enable him to help build the progressive response to the economic challenges facing all workers.
Saunders and AFSCME are engaged in coalitions that take on such issues as income inequality, health care, fair pay, tax fairness, voting rights, civil rights, workplace safety, retirement security and corporate transparency. He has 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.
Saunders grew up in a union household in Cleveland, Ohio. His father was a bus driver who 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 bargaining units.
During Saunders time there, the association was in a battle with then-Gov. James Rhodes over getting legal collective bargaining rights. Multiple times, the workers succeeded in getting bills passed granting collective bargaining power, only to be vetoed by Rhodes. It took a change in the governorship for the bill to be finally signed into law by Gov. Dick Celeste in 1983. The association later became an AFSCME affiliate.
Meanwhile 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.
By the time he became AFSCME’s secretary-treasurer in 2010, he had a wealth of experience that prepared him for the fierce public battles that were to come.
Meanwhile, conservatives in the Ohio legislature introduced the anti-union “Senate Bill 5,” which would greatly restrict the right of public employees to collectively bargain if voters approved it in a referendum. Saunders, who was at that time secretary-treasurer at AFSCME, went to Ohio to fire up the opposition to the measure.
“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 Walker. That effort fell short, but Saunders and his predecessor as president, Gerald McEntee, claimed a victory anyway. “With the recall of Sen. Van Wanggaard, a pro-worker majority now controls the Wisconsin Senate and we have dealt a major blow against Walker’s ability to do more damage to the working families of Wisconsin,” they wrote. Further, “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.”
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 hand their way.
Saunders’ showed his willingness to take heat for standing firm on principle this summer when he pulled AFSCME out of an alliance with the United Negro College Fund after the fund’s president, Michael Lomax, agreed to be a speaker at a conservative summit led by the brothers Charles and David Koch, sharing a bill with Charles Murray, whose writings connected African-American poverty and low intelligence.
In an open letter, Saunders indicated that he was “deeply troubled” when the College Fund accepted a $25 million donation from the Koch brothers, given their support for efforts to roll back voting rights and other elements of the right-wing agenda, but was willing to overlook it. But attending the Koch summit, where the billionaires were plotting the next stages of their political crusade, “was a betrayal of everything the UNCF stands for.” He added of the person who was also highlighted at the event, “There is no person in America whose work is more opposed to the fundamental mission of the UNCF than Charles Murray.”
“According to Professor Murray, we and our children are genetically inferior,” he wrote, making clear that for the first African-American man to lead a national public employee union, this was personal.
The Union Scholars Program that AFSCME was doing with the College Fund will continue, he promised. But Saunders asserted the principles he saw in those Memphis sanitation workers: Dignity and respect for every person are values worth fighting for.