Union President on Labor and Black History

On the 45th anniversary of the Memphis Sanitation Strike, we spoke to Lee Saunders, AFSCME's first black leader.

Lee Saunders (Courtesy of AFSCME)
Lee Saunders (Courtesy of AFSCME)

(The Root) — The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is America’s largest union, and Lee Saunders is the first African-American president in its 80-year history.

According to Saunders, while AFSCME’s members are only 16 to 18 percent black, its ties to the African-American struggle for economic equality run deep.  

On the 45th anniversary of the Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968, The Root spoke to him about the significance of the landmark civil rights event in the labor movement’s history, the import of his organization’s efforts for the African-American community and what he hopes to see from President Obama’s second term.

The Root: You’re AFSCME’s first African-American president. What does that say about where the union is and where we are as a country?

Lee Saunders: I think that we have obviously made gains over the years. You have an African American as president of the United States, and our union reflects what the overall society reflects. Maybe this could not have been done 15 or 20 years ago, but I think the members understood the purpose of having a fighter — of having someone who believes in public service, who came up from the ranks of public service — and they chose a candidate I believe who they thought was best qualified to do the job.

TR: What have been some of your biggest successes and struggles as president?

LS: We’re in trying times. I’ve been with the union for 36 years, and I think that we’re faced with as troubling a time as we’ve ever been faced with as a union — the attacks on public services, the attacks on pension, the attacks on the collective bargaining rights that we have enjoyed, the attacks on working families whether they belong to a union or not.

And there is a power play going on in this country right now, and it’s about those who have the wealth — the top 1 or 2 percent — who want that wealth at the expense of the other 98 or 99 percent of Americans who are trying to play by the rules every day. So we’ve been advocates for working families, by being advocates for programs that support working families at the federal and state level, and by being fighters every single day.

TR: In what ways is the work you do particularly relevant to the African-American struggle for economic equality?

LS: I think if you look at the history of the union movement, especially in the public sector, we were closely linked with the whole civil rights struggle and the economic struggle of African Americans in this country. Dr. King traveled to Memphis supporting 1,300 sanitation workers who were on strike for better wages and benefits, and wanted dignity and respect on the job. And he was successful in linking the importance of civil rights, labor rights and economic rights, and that’s the history, essentially, of our union.