(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.
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 Root's staff writer and White House correspondent.