theGrio’s 100: Lee Saunders, organizing America’s largest union

Who is Lee Saunders?

Lee Saunders is the first black president of AFSCME (the American Federation of State, City Municipal Employees), and AFL-CIO. He leads an organization representing 1.6 million union members.

Saunders was elected the union’s president in June 2012. Before that, the labor activist, whose father was a Cleveland bus driver and mother taught at a community college, worked as a labor economist, and served in various administrative capacities with AFSCME.

Saunders, who is also vice president of the AFL-CIO Executive Council and chair of its Political Committee, is an at-large member of the Democratic National Committee, and Treasurer of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. He also holds the title of president of the membership group Working America, which fights for living wages and other issues for American workers, and is on the board of the National Action Network.

Why is he on theGrio’s 100?

Saunders made history as the first African-American president of the nation’s largest public employee union. And 2012 was a critical year for labor, with several state governors and legislators attacking the right of public employees to organize. After setbacks in Ohio and Wisconsin, organized labor fought back, helping to roll back Ohio’s anti-collective bargaining law and pushing for a recall election against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. In the 2012 election, organized labor played a critical role, helping to re-elect President Barack Obama. Saunders was a fierce advocate, accusing Republicans of “abandoning all pretense of compassion,” and pushing back hard against GOP attempts to roll back labor rights.

The union, whose members form the backbone of the Democratic Party’s ground game, along with a key source of funding for Democratic organizations and PACs, touted a number of successes in the election; defeating a California ballot initiative and re-electing or electing Democratic Senators in Virginia, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Wisconsin and Saunders’ home state of Ohio, along with the re-election of the president.

His union represents jobs that span the breadth of the American economy, from bus drivers to sanitation workers to police and corrections officers, teachers and nurses. With African-American unemployment continuing to hover over 13 percent, these jobs, and maintaining middle class wages and benefits, will be critical to both the black community and the American middle class as a whole.

What’s next for Lee Saunders?

Saunders and AFSCME are currently fighting for workman’s compensation benefits for the first responders in Newtown, Connecticut, and are gearing up for fights with the Republican governor in Michigan over collective bargaining.  They are also focused on organizing new workers and fighting for retirement security for all Americans.  One of AFSCME and Saunders’ future goals includes reshaping the labor movement by building allies to defeat anti-worker legislation.

Follow Lee Saunders on Twitter at @AFSCME