How Lee Saunders and AFSCME Built Worker Power Post-Janus

by Kim Diehl

Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, grew up in a union household in Cleveland, Ohio. The son of a city bus driver and a community organizer, Saunders’ family life was centered on public service and making voices heard for the common good. This theme runs through his life’s work.

“My father was an active member of the Amalgamated Transit Union and a union steward. My mother was a community organizer and went back to college later in life to become a professor at a community college and a member of the American Association of University Professors. They taught me that the union movement is the fabric of our country,” Saunders recalls. “I was raised with the belief that working families should have a seat at the table.”

“I get jazzed up about what we are able to do with allies like NELP if we keep our eyes on the prize,” he says. “When we fight together for justice and for workers, all boats are lifted up at once.”

Saunders started working at AFSCME in 1978 as a labor economist. Today, he is the first African American to serve as AFSCME’s president. At the core of his leadership is the connection between public service and building collective power.

“I get jazzed up about what we are able to do with allies like NELP if we keep our eyes on the prize,” he says. “When we fight together for justice and for workers, all boats are lifted up at once.”

NELP and AFSCME’s relationship reaches back several decades and across multiple issues, and it strengthened as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court case, Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, which was decided in June 2018.

“When we were faced with the Supreme Court considering Janus, NELP stood with us, and you continue to be there for us,” Saunders says. “NELP was very vocal about the importance of that case, and you were vocal in your belief in the freedom of workers to join unions. You all did not sit on the sidelines. You fought back and made it clear that labor unions are important for all families.”

Under Saunders’ leadership, the union launched a program called AFSCME Strong, which builds power through internal and external organizing and recognizes the individual contributions that AFSCME members make to serving and strengthening their communities.

“A lot of folks thought that was going to be the death of the labor movement,” Saunders says.

The program is credited with growing AFSCME’s membership in spite of—and, in part, because of—the attacks on public service workers’ union rights in cases like Janus.

“A lot of folks thought that was going to be the death of the labor movement,” Saunders says. “But our work with allies and friends like NELP rebuilds momentum and strength. We have a stronger activist base within our union now, and a lot of that credit goes to our allies. We know we’re not alone.”

NELP is proud to honor President Saunders for his vision and dedication to building worker power at our gala, NELP50: Advancing Dignity & Justice at Work, on Monday, May 6 in Washington, D.C. Get your ticket before they sell out, and read more about Saunders at the link below.

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