AFSCME: Attacks On Public Sector Harm Middle Class

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, one of the country's largest unions, is facing a difficult climate. Local governments are slashing employee pensions and state governments are considering measures to curb collective bargaining rights. Host Michel Martin talks with Lee Saunders, AFSCME's new president.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. My thanks to Maria Hinojosa for sitting in for me last week so I could take a few days off. Coming up, a very funny story about an unfunny subject - being unemployed for two years. We'll tell you about a man who lost his job but found a new calling in the process. We'll tell you about it in a few minutes.

But first, along the same lines we have a newsmaker interview with a man who's trying to protect the jobs of public sector workers at a time when those jobs are under threat in a way they have not been in years, often because of tight budgets, and frankly, changing political attitudes. For example, the mayor of Scranton, Pennsylvania unilaterally slashed the pay of city workers to $7.25 an hour, the state's minimum wage.

Lee Saunders is the newly elected president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME. The union represents more than one million people, everybody from clerical workers in city governments to nurses at public hospitals to officers in the nation's prisons. He's also the co-author of "The Main Street Moment: Fighting Back to Save the American Dream." And he's with us in our Washington, D.C. studios now. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

LEE SAUNDERS: Hi, Michel. Good to be with you.

MARTIN: You're taking over at a very critical time in the life of your union, so is it condolences or congratulations to you?

SAUNDERS: I think it's congratulations. It's a big deal.

MARTIN: Because?

SAUNDERS: We represent 1.6 million members across the country.

MARTIN: That includes retirees. That includes retirees.

SAUNDERS: That includes retirees. We perform vital public services. So we're out here to promote public services and the importance of public services across this country.

MARTIN: What do you consider your top priority as president right now?

SAUNDERS: Well, we've got a number. Number one, we've got to continue to organize new members. That's very important over the past two years. We've also got to continue to play in the political and legislative arena. We're under attack like never before - not only at the national level but we're also under attack at the state and local government levels, where we've had to deal with the Scott Walkers of the world, the governor of Wisconsin.

The John Kasich, the very, very conservative governors who are trying to steal our voices away from us, take collective bargaining away from public sector workers and trying to limit our right to represent our members across the country.

MARTIN: Why do you think that public sector workers are under attack, as you describe it?

SAUNDERS: Well, in the labor movement we represent 35 percent. The private sector and the private sector unions, we're down to seven percent organization now. It's not healthy to have a seven percent rate in a private sector and a 35 percent rate in the public sector. But the ultra-conservatives and the folks that want to take us out of the ballgame are now coming at us, having 35 percent of that workforce, and they want to take us out of the ballgame.

MARTIN: There are those who argue that that disparity speaks to something. Some argue that perhaps the traditional tradeoff has been pay for security, right? The public sector workers take less pay but in exchange for that they expect more job security. But it also shows the disparity between pay in the public and private sector really isn't that large.

And given that that's the case, people argue, why should then public sector workers enjoy the level of security to the degree that they have it?

SAUNDERS: You know, we live in the richest country on the face of the Earth, and when I was growing up in Cleveland, Ohio my dad was a bus driver. My mom was a community organizer. I remember sitting around the kitchen table with my brother and me and they talked about the importance of communities coming together to improve everyone's work lives.

And that's essentially why I believe that my work at AFSCME is so important. This should not be a country that's rushing to the bottom, paying substandard wages or getting rid of folks' benefits who have worked a lifetime to receive pensions and now pensions are under attack.

We should figure out ways to grow the middle class, to support working families across the country, rather than rushing to the bottom. It's clearly a divide and conquer mentality by a number of these governors and a number of folks that are elected representatives here in Washington, D.C., where they want to blame the economy and blame the problems that exist right now on public service workers, and that's just wrong. And we're fighting back on that.

MARTIN: We're talking with Lee Saunders. It's a newsmaker interview with the new president of AFSCME. That's one of the largest public workers unions in the country. That's the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME.

You mentioned pensions. I was going to ask about that later, but I'll bring it up now. There are those who argue - political leaders, both Democrats and Republicans, who argue that their jurisdictions just cannot afford the level of pension benefits that have been agreed to. California Governor - Democrat - Jerry Brown called pension reform imperative for his state's fiscal health.

Voters in San Diego and San Jose, California have approved measures to curb city pensions. How do you respond to that?

SAUNDERS: Well, number one, I think we've got to get some facts on the table. The average pensioner for AFSCME, one who receives a pension who has worked 30, 35 years, is 18 to 19 thousand dollars a year. That's not exorbitant. Those folks have paid into their pension programs. The state or the local governments don't do it all on their own. Our people pay in to those programs.

And so they deserve an adequate pension that will satisfy them in their retiring years.

MARTIN: So is your main argument that this is a contract which can't just be...

SAUNDERS: Well, it is a contract.

MARTIN: ...aggregated by one party?

SAUNDERS: It is a contract.

MARTIN: Or is it social fairness, that they deserve it?

SAUNDERS: It's both. It's a contract that state and local governments have entered into. They've clearly - bad investments have been made, but those investments are starting to increase once again and the pension funds are becoming stronger once again. And we don't believe that folks should be penalized by reducing those benefits and taking away their pension from them.

MARTIN: But do you argue - if the states or other jurisdictions argue that they simply can't afford it, what do you say? That the alternative is that or bankruptcy or cutting services to the point where those communities become unlivable, what do you say?

SAUNDERS: We don't think it is going to get to that because those investments are starting to increase once again. But let me say this. I mean, we aren't burying our heads in the sand on this. As a matter of fact, when I became president, one of the first things that I announced was that we really needed to talk about pension reform in this country.

We needed to bring in experts not only from those within our unions but experts outside so we can talk about what kind of pension should be paid. And I don't it's an AFSCME problem. It's not a public service union problem. It's a problem for all Americans, all working families who are seeing their pensions decimated.

MARTIN: You alluded to this earlier, so I wanted to talk more about your analysis of this. You mentioned Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin. You mentioned Governor Kasich in Ohio. A mixed record there. AFSCME helped defeat an Ohio referendum that limited collective bargaining for public workers.

But in June, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, one of the most high profile sort of political battles I think that we have in the country right now along with the presidential race, he survived a recall election that was driven by public employee unions. How do you analyze those two different scenarios? What do you think happened there?

SAUNDERS: Well, first of all, you have to take a look at the recall effort in Wisconsin. One of the things that we found was that folks really don't like recalls. They believe that if, in fact, a person is elected, they need to serve out their term, unless they're doing something so terrible.

So people believe that even though they disagreed with his policies, that he deserved to stay out his full term. But it was not a loss. We were able to regain the Senate through the recall process, so the kinds of programs and legislation that the governor's going to try to put forth, he's going to have to go through the Senate now and the Senate is in the hands of working families and we're going to be able to fight back on that.

So that was a victory for us there. In Ohio, it was not a recall. It was a referendum. And it was a referendum on the right of collective service workers to have collective bargaining in that state. We were able to get more than a million signatures there to put that on the ballot.

And because it was a sole issue and people understood the importance and the value of workers having the opportunity to sit down at the table, talk about their wages and benefits and working conditions, then people understood the importance of that and by a two-to-one margin folks said that public service workers should have the right to collective bargaining in that state.

MARTIN: So you feel that when the issue is collective bargaining rights as opposed to an individual or some other issue, you feel...

SAUNDERS: I think Ohio proved that. If you look at the state of Florida, where they were trying to privatize public services in that state, they started off with corrections and then they were going to go all of state service. We were able to beat back that attempt in the legislature with moderate Republicans who supported our position that you should not privatize state services. So we were victorious there.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for coming in and taking the time to speak with us early in your tenure. We do have to talk about the presidential election, and one of the reasons this relates to the Wisconsin story is that one of the factors that people believe may have been relevant in Wisconsin was the very large sums of money that were spent on that race.

It's been reported that AFSCME is going to - AFSCME's already endorsed President Obama, by the way. The New York Times has reported that the union plans to spend close to $100 million on election efforts across the country. Is that true? But, given how much money is pouring into campaigns on both sides, is that enough to make your voice heard, even as large of a number as that sounds like it is?

SAUNDERS: Well, let me tell you. We've got to play, not only in the national election, we're going to play in the state and local government elections, also. I'm not going to put a dollar amount on it. We're going to do what we have to do.

MARTIN: Why wouldn't you give a figure? I mean, these are the people who do the people's business. Why wouldn't you give a figure?

SAUNDERS: Because we're going - because I don't have a figure right now. I mean, we're going to analyze. We're going to look at what needs to be done. These are extremely important elections across the country, not only in Washington for the presidential election, but governors and state legislatures, and we're going to spend what we must spend to get our voices heard and to support working families all across this country.

MARTIN: One other thing I did mean to ask you about. You happen to be the first African-American president in the history of AFSCME. Is that significant to you?

SAUNDERS: Oh, sure, it is.

MARTIN: And what does it mean? What do you think the significance is?

SAUNDERS: Well, personally, it's a huge honor for me. It's in my gut, it's in my heart, it's in my soul and I was a public servant. I was a state employee in Ohio before I moved to Washington, D.C. and began working for AFSCME, so I understand the importance of public service.

I was in New York City running one of our largest affiliates when 9/11 hit and I saw those towers crumble and I saw public service workers not run away from Ground Zero, but they ran to it, risking their lives to support those folks who had been affected at Ground Zero. And we were there, I saw it firsthand, so there is a passion in me about the importance of public service and I'm going to carry that forward every single day.

MARTIN: Is the part of the issue, though, that public sector work has been a critical part of the entry into the middle class of African-Americans and other ethnic minorities? And I do wonder whether you feel that race is a part of the conversation around the views toward public sector workers or not?

SAUNDERS: Well, you look at the statistics and 21 percent of African-Americans work for state or local government. State and local governments are the largest employer for African-Americans across this country. Almost 700,000 jobs have been lost in the public service, so it affects African-Americans at a higher rate than other workers and we're concerned about that.

I mean, that has been the way where African-American families have been able to move into the middle class. Unfortunately, that middle class is shrinking. Rather than tearing it apart and continuing to watch it shrink, we've got to consider ways and develop ways in which we see the middle class grow.

And we believe that President Obama is espousing the right ways, rebuilding the middle class rather than continuing to support the top one percent of this country where they're seeing more wealth and they're seeing more power at the expense of working families in the middle class.

MARTIN: Lee Saunders is the new president of the public service employee union, AFSCME. That is the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The union represents more than 1.4 million active workers, 1.6 million people, overall. He was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Lee Saunders, thank you for speaking with us.

SAUNDERS: Thank you for having me.

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