AFSCME President On The Political Influence Of Labor Unions NPR's Michel Martin speaks with AFSCME president Lee Saunders about the political power of labor unions this election year.

AFSCME President On The Political Influence Of Labor Unions

AFSCME President On The Political Influence Of Labor Unions

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NPR's Michel Martin speaks with AFSCME president Lee Saunders about the political power of labor unions this election year.


Labor Day is tomorrow. And while this is always a day to celebrate the contributions of American workers, this year, the conversation feels different, with a global pandemic that's put some workers on the front lines as never before, high unemployment and a high-stakes election. So we decided to take a few minutes to take stock of American labor at this unusual moment. In a second, we'll look at how the coronavirus pandemic continues to affect essential workers.

But first, we're going to turn our attention to politics. An election year is a good time to think about the political power of unions. But how is that power being directed at a time when union members from grocery workers to police may have very different interests? We wanted to hear more about this so, we've called on Lee Saunders. He is the president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFSCME. It's the largest trade union of public employees in the country.

Lee Saunders, welcome. Thanks for talking with us.

LEE SAUNDERS: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So before we dive into specific issues, as we said, you run the largest public sector union in the country. I would imagine that your endorsement is highly sought after from presidential candidates. Have you been hearing from the campaigns?

SAUNDERS: We talked to the Biden campaign on all the times - as a matter of fact, I did a video for them yesterday talking about the importance of labor unions in this country, talking about the - what workers do every single day to keep this country running. Yet workers are under attack like never before.

MARTIN: The representative of the Police Benevolent Association in New York City, which is a pretty large union of public service workers, spoke at the Republican National Convention in support of President Trump. So have you been hearing from the Trump campaign as well? Or how does that work? Does everybody just go their own way?

SAUNDERS: I have not heard from the Trump campaign or the Trump team since he was elected president, which was almost four years ago. We have been fighting back like never before, meaning AFSCME and most of the trade union movement, against policies that he's implemented that are continuing to attack working families. He is no friend of working people.

MARTIN: You wrote a piece last week criticizing Congress and the president for not moving additional funds for states and cities to protect public employees or public services in general. Is that the biggest issue for your members going into this? And if not, what would you say it is?

SAUNDERS: Well, it clearly is the aid to states and cities and towns and school districts, aid to the post office. But it's also affordable health care. It's also retirement security, protecting Social Security, protecting Medicaid. All of those things are extremely important. But one of the things that we can concentrate on right now and our members are concentrating on because they feel it - they have been struggling every single day to make ends meet and go to work. And now they are being presented with a pink slip because of the inaction of the Senate.

They don't want to provide funds to these governmental entities to continue to provide essential services. So it is absolutely irresponsible. After the House passed the HEROES Act more than three months ago, it is absolutely irresponsible for the Senate to be on vacation right now and not taking care of business.



MARTIN: What I'm trying to - what I'm asking you, Mr. Saunders, is people don't vote for the Senate. They vote for a senator, and they vote for a president. I'm trying to understand, like, what's the overall issue for your members that they can, in fact, vote on? Are you saying is it based on an issue, or is it based on an overall leadership strategy over the last four years? You know what I'm saying?

SAUNDERS: It's all issues. But it's also important to engage in down-ballot elections also to elect friendly folks who are running for Congress or running for the president or running for governor who believe in supporting the issues of working families, and I just laid out to you what those are.

MARTIN: You represent more than 90,000 law enforcement officers. What's your reaction to calls for police reform and accountability? Some of those calls do say that funds should be diverted from police, or union contracts should be changed. So how are you navigating this? It does seem to be a situation where different groups of your members understand what's in their best interest in a different way. How are you navigating that?

SAUNDERS: Let me be clear about the 90,000. The 90,000 is not police, OK? We do represent some police. But 90,000 includes all of our law enforcement members, which would include corrections officers, probation, parole - all of those kinds of folks who provide those services.

But let me say this. We have a long history of fighting for civil rights and economic justice. We just came out of our convention, and we embrace and the delegates of that convention embrace significant police reforms because we know that we must end and we've got to address deep-seated racism and inequalities when we find them.

So we have called for increased resources toward mental health and social services, the creation of standards on use of force and a database to prevent bad apples from finding jobs elsewhere in public safety. We can provide that seat at the table where we can have discussions and listen to what they've got to say while they listen to what we have to say.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, how have you been working these last couple of months? How do you - how does a labor leader lead labor at a time like this, when you're not supposed to go anywhere, you're working...

SAUNDERS: (Laughter).

MARTIN: How does that work?

SAUNDERS: We just had our convention, as I said, a couple of weeks ago. It was a completely virtual convention. So we're still conducting business. We're still engaging our members. We're talking with them. We're making phone calls. We're thinking of different ways to remain connected. And we're preparing for the challenges of the future.

MARTIN: Lee Saunders is the president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME.

Lee Saunders, thanks so much for taking the time.

SAUNDERS: Thanks for having me.

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