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)

If you look at the impact that the Great Recession had on African-American families, you’ll see that the gulf between wages earned by African Americans and wages earned by whites has grown. You’ll see that home ownership has declined within the black community because of the Great Recession. So our families and our neighborhoods and our communities are suffering.

And I believe that one of the ways we can rebuild our communities is to have a stronger labor movement in this country. I believe the labor movement is responsible for building up the middle class, and the middle class is under attack right now. And because the middle class is shrinking, there’s a direct correlation with the fact that the labor movement is shrinking — the number of people that we represent, both in the public and private sector.

I think it’s extremely important for AFSCME this month, being Black History Month, to talk about the link that exists between the labor movements and the civil rights movement, the fight for economic justice and the fight for human rights.

TR: On the anniversary of the Memphis Sanitation Strike, what are some of the lessons from that event that you think are still relevant today?

LS: I think that in many cases, we’re fighting the same fight. We’re fighting to promote the important services that our members perform. We’re fighting for dignity and respect on the job. We’re fighting for decent wages and getting a decent retirement.

Those are the same kinds of things that our members fought for in Memphis and that our members fought for in Wisconsin where we were born, and we have people right now in 2013 who are fighting to take those rights away from us. To take collective bargaining away from us — to lower our standard of living, lower wages, take away our pensions. We’ve got to be just as vocal if not more vocal, just as militant and just as aggressive in making our voices heard in everything we do across the country.

TR: What do you most want from President Obama in his second term?

LS: I think he’s already doing it … he’s standing up and using the presidency as a bully pulpit to support the needs of working families. He’s taking on that top 1 or 2 percent. And he’s got to be very, very strong as far as protecting Medicaid, Social Security and programs that working families rely upon and depend upon. And he’s doing just that. He’s trying to level the playing field.

Yeah, there’s nothing wrong with being wealthy, there’s nothing wrong with being rich, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of others. What we’ve got to do, and what he’s attempting to do, is to rebuild that middle class and support working families so that they have a shot to achieve the American dream.

Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Roots staff writer and White House correspondent.  

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