Photo via AP

With more than 1.6 million members, AFSCME is the nation’s biggest union of public employees, and one of the most politically powerful—and now, one of the most threatened. We spoke to Lee Saunders, the president of the union, about trying to survive the “battle” of the vicious new Trump era.

The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees represents public workers ranging from sanitation workers to corrections officers to nurses—all the sorts of people that Scott Walker hates. The union is a major Democratic political donor. Lee Saunders has been AFSCME’s president for the past five years, and became one of Barack Obama’s closest confidantes in the labor world. Last week, Saunders came to our office to talk about legal threats to his union, organizing, politics, pensions, and navigating Trump world.

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Splinter: You had a good relationship with the Obama administration. How has your relationship with the new administration been different?

Lee Saunders: There is no relationship. We are in the mode of organizing our members internally to educate them and to organize them in their communities across the country on the issues that working families care about, whether it’s retirement security, or health care—we’re having a big battle on health care in Washington, and, knock on wood, for the time being it looks like we’ve been successful. But it’s all about organizing. It’s about getting back to basics, and grassroots organizing at the local level. So regardless of what happens in Washington DC, or in the state governments, where we are also under attack, I think it’s all about organizing and going back to those basics. Communicating with our folks, talking with them, talking about the issues, and listening to what they have to say...

We’ve got to fight for what I believe to be our basic freedoms. We’ve got to fight for health insurance. We’ve got to fight for retirement security. We’ve got to fight for a voice on the job. Those are all freedoms that working families should have, and people are trying to take away those kinds of freedoms. We’re in a battle.

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When you say there hasn’t been a relationship with the new administration, does that mean there has been no outreach from them at all?

Saunders: One of the plans, quite honestly, is that this current administration believes they can divide and conquer. They’ve had discussions with the building trades, they’ve had some discussions with the industrial unions. They have not had any discussions with the public service unions at all. So we have had no contact with the Department of Labor. What we do know is that they’re trying to take away some of the rights that we were able to obtain during the Obama administration. The regulations that were passed, the overtime rule, all those kinds of things—it’s up in the air, nobody knows what’s going to happen. Again, we have to understand we’re in a fight.

Clearly the Trump administration is trying to cultivate the building trades, but not other unions. Have there been conversations behind the scenes about that between all the big unions?

Saunders: Sure. I think we’re putting things on the table and we’re being honest with one another. I have a very strong relationship with the president of the building trades, Sean McGarvey. We sit down and we talk. I think that they know sooner or later President Trump will not be supportive of working families, will not be supportive of their members. But they’re willing to sit down and talk and listen to what he’s got to say. He made a lot of promises when he was running for president. He talked about how he was gonna be supporting working families. He talked about how he was gonna create jobs, bring back jobs to this country. He believed in goods being made in America. Well, you can talk the talk, but you’ve also got to walk the walk. And quite honestly he’s not walking the walk on any of those kinds of issues. And we’re going to have to continue to sit down and talk within the labor community about what he’s trying to do—divide and conquer.

Would you like to see the entire labor community stand up say, essentially, “We’re part of the resistance?” Or is that unrealistic?

Saunders: It’s a broad cross section of folks that we represent, and I think that will be difficult for some unions to say. I think what we’ve got to do is communicate and organize and mobilize our communities and our members—not talking about individuals, not talking about the elections in 2018 in November, because honestly a lot of our members are turned off by politics. On both sides. We’ve got to talk about the issues that impact them and their families, and how we can fight back and make our voices heard like never before. I think if you go about doing it that way, we’re going to be able to build an army of folks, along with our progressive partners outside of the labor movement, where we’re fighting back on the issues that working families care about.

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A lawsuit that’s making its way to the Supreme Court, Janus v AFSCME, could make public unions like yours “right to work”—which would be a serious blow to your ability to collect dues and maintain membership numbers. What are your thoughts on the suit?

Saunders: I’m not optimistic. If you look at the makeup of the Supreme Court, I believe that this time next year, this country will be right to work in the public sector. We can’t hide from that, we can’t bury our heads in the sand. The question is, what do we do about it? AFSCME has been very aggressive in making a lot of changes in our union, dealing with what we believe [will] be the Supreme Court ruling against us and overturning 41 years of law with the [Abood v. Detroit Board of Education decision, which allowed public unions to collect agency fees from all workers in union shops, to cover the costs of representing the workers]. We’ve developed a program called AFSCME Strong, which is essentially back to basics. It’s talking with our members one on one, and listening to our members... At one time, we treated all of our members as if they were activists. And all of our members aren’t activists. That doesn’t make them bad people. They love their union. They understand the value of being a union member. But it also means that their plates are full, and they can’t devote 100% of their time to being a union member. And there’s nothing wrong with that...

Our folks are public service workers. They didn’t get into that profession to become millionaires and billionaires. They got into that profession because they care.

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Public unions have been a popular political target, especially on the state level, in Wisconsin and elsewhere. Is there a way to make the public care about what’s happening to them?

Saunders: Quite honestly I think we have not done a good job of educating our communities and the public at large about what public service is all about—how people rely and depend upon those public services every single day, whether it’s picking up the trash, keeping your water clean so you don’t get sick when you drink it, repaving and rebuilding roads, providing health care services, providing child care services, providing home care services, having workers in libraries that work with kids. That’s the kind of work that our members perform. And we’ve got to promote that kind of work, because communities rely up on that. And sometimes that connection is not being made, where we’re providing those essential public services, yet we’re under attack.

Are you projecting a certain amount of membership loss, if the Janus case goes against you and you’re facing a “right to work” situation?

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Saunders: I think there will be a loss of membership. But by the same token, with what we’re trying to do in recasting and rebuilding our program and developing the kind of strategy that I just talked about, I think that in many ways we can be a stronger union. And maybe a little bit smaller. But a stronger union, where we’ve made the connection where non-members are saying, “Wait a minute, I need this. And this is important to me. So I should be a member, and not someone who’s relying upon the benefits but not paying a dime. That’s not fair.”

Is there a way to turn around the steady decline of union membership on a national level?

Saunders: There better be. If we don’t do it, then I hate to think about tomorrow. I mentioned the fact that AFSCME is an organizing union. We grew by 12,000 members last year. We’re organizing not only in public service.. but we’re organizing on a national basis EMTs, we’re organizing in hospitals. Because we actually believe that even if it’s a private hospital, it’s still a public service. You’re helping your community, you’re providing an essential service. We’re gonna continue to identify the kinds of targets that should be organized, and you’ve got other unions that are doing the same thing.

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Here’s the problem: in the public sector, it’s about 35% organized. In the private sector, it’s about 6.1%. You cannot have a healthy labor movement with that variance in percentages. And we’ve got to also be committed, while we have the strength and the power and the resources, to help our sisters and brothers in the private sector to organize, so we can increase the density and move that marker from 6.1% to a higher level. And we’re prepared to help and provide resources to do just that... one of the things that we’ve got to do is to push and cajole some of our sisters and brothers in the private sector to treat organizing as a priority, as we treat it.

What accounts for the fact that public sector union density is so much higher than in the private sector? If it’s only the fact that you haven’t had to contend with “Right to Work” laws, it’s a grim prognosis for you in the near future.

Saunders: It’s hard, man. It’s hard to organize, especially in the private sector. Because we don’t have a level playing field, as far as the labor laws in this country. At one point, it was easier to organize in the public sector. Now it’s becoming just as difficult, with the kinds of governors and state legislatures and elected officials that we’ve got to deal with. It’s hard. And it doesn’t happen magically—it happens because you’ve got to be committed to it, it happens because you’ve got to put resources into it, and that’s what we’re doing.

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Do you think there’s a tension between the resources you put into politics, and the resources you put into organizing? Is that a zero sum game?

Saunders: Organizing is our number one priority. We spend about 30% of our budget on organizing. But we also believe that we have the ability to play heavily in the political arena. And especially where it matters most to our members—and it matters most to our members when you talk about governors races, state legislature races, city council races, and things of that nature. If you get them enthused and active in the local fight around politics, then you can start connecting the dots as far as the importance of federal politics associated with that. But a lot of our members say, “Why spend all this money on politics? Because it doesn’t matter.” I think what happened in 2016 was you had a lot of frustrated people who said, “It just doesn’t matter. We don’t care who’s in charge, because it just doesn’t matter.” And that’s why we’ve got to organize around the issues that impact them, and their communities, and their families. We’ve got to play. We’ve got to participate in the political arena. That’s how we’ve been able to move things in a positive way, not just at the bargaining table, but through legislation.

You talk about retirement security. But when you look at the huge holes in public pension plans across America, do you get a sinking feeling?

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Saunders: As far as we’re concerned, retirement security and the pensions that our folks have worked for should be off the table. Why do I say that? Our people pay into their pension programs. This is not a gift that comes from the employer. They put their hard earned money into that pension, and they should be receiving a fair return on the dollars they put in. Now, you also have a smaller employer match with those pension plans. Yet you have had politicians that decided that they don’t have to put any money into that pension program. Even if it’s constitutionally mandated! They’ve ignored that. And then they come running and say, “Now we’ve got problems with the pension program.” Well obviously you [will], if you aren’t meeting your requirement of putting money in, and then attacking the very people that have put their own money in and expecting they’re gonna have a decent retirement...

We’re very active in the city of Detroit, when the city went bankrupt. The average pension in that city was $18,000 a year. That was the average pension benefit. Do you think that’s a lot of money? The folks who wanted to concentrate on taking money away from workers and retirees, they wanted to cut that by 40%. Just because they said, “We’re out of money. We don’t have the luxury of paying pensions.” Rather than looking at the corporations and the people who actually put that city under. We were able to fight back, and we organized and mobilized. We took a hit but it wasn’t near 40% at all. So you’ve got to stand for something, or you’ll fall for anything.

Do you think that the decision of most unions to get behind Hillary Clinton was a mistake, in retrospect?

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Saunders: We were a strong Hillary supporter. I don’t think it was a mistake. I think that we underestimated the frustration and the anger that was out there, even with our own members, because they weren’t seeing any major improvements. And Trump was able to hit the chord about bringing jobs back, about getting rid of NAFTA, about making it in America, bringing the coal mines back. He hit a nerve. I think folks were saying, “It’s bad enough for us now, so why don’t we give this a chance?” And that was because of the level of frustration and the level of anger that’s out there. He talked a good talk, but he’s not walking the walk. You look at who he’s appointed to the cabinet positions—billionaires. Wall Street types. You look at what he’s trying to do. Saying he’s creating jobs? He’s not creating jobs. He’s not saving plants He went to Indiana, he said he was going to save that entire plant. That didn’t happen. There are companies that are continuing to move out of this country. It’s a shell game. What he’s presenting and promoting is completely false, and it doesn’t benefit working families...

When you’re talking about 22 million people losing health insurance, when you’re talking about cutting Medicaid by over $700 billion, that has a direct impact on families. And we’ve got to connect those dots, so people say, “This is worth fighting for, and I can make a difference.” They would say in the past, I think, “This is worth fighting for,” but by the same token they would say, “but we can’t make a difference.” We’ve got to make sure that they understand that in fact through coalition-building, through their unions and working with other organizations within our communities, they can make a difference.

Do you think the election of Trump has energized the left so much that we’re entering a new period of activism, like the 1960s? Or in fact are we entering a darker time, like the 1970s, and this is just the beginning?

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Saunders: I’m hopeful and optimistic that if we do it the right way... that this could be a time when people are more engaged, and are willing to fight for the issues they believe in. Rather than saying it doesn’t matter, and they bury their heads in the sand. This is not gonna be a pretty picture, if this country is continuing to move in the direction that it’s moving. And I think that people have got to understand that, and we can help them in understanding it. The question will be, will it be a call to arms? And will we be able to activate a lot of people that are disenfranchised right now, that are frustrated right now, that are very, very angry? I think that we can do it.

Have you spoken to Obama since he left office?

Saunders: I have.

And did he have anything interesting to say?

Saunders: [Laughs] I’ll keep that between the president and myself.