AFSCME President Lee Saunders on the Need for a ‘Strong Army’ to Advance Economic Justice and Civil Rights

By catherine lizette gonzalez Aug 18, 2017

It was raining on the day that Echol Cole and Robert Walker died while working for the Memphis Sanitation Department. Denied access to the employee break room, Cole and Walker were forced to shelter from the rain behind a malfunctioning city truck, only to die moments later when they were crushed by its garbage packer. That following week, members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) walked off the job, citing racial discrimination, low wages and unsafe work conditions. Nearly 1,300 of the city’s mostly Black sanitation workers went on strike, marching through the streets carrying placards with a slogan that declared their humanity in the most concise way: “I am a man.”

Martin Luther King Jr. arrived in Memphis two months later, and delivered the last speech of his life. In his prophetic addresss, Dr. King radically advocated for the labor rights and full economic equality of Black communities, saying, "Individually we are poor when you compare us to White society in America […] never stop and forget that collectively, we are richer than all the nations in the world." The following day, on April 4, 1968, Dr. King was assassinated by a White supremacist.

Almost 50 years later, AFSCME announced the launch of the I Am 2018 campaign to commemorate the legacy of Dr. King and the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike. On the anniversary of Dr. King’s death, AFSCME will begin training thousands of labor organizers and activists around the country to address poverty, income inequality and racial disparity. Recently, Colorlines spoke with AFSCME president Lee Saunders to learn more about I Am 2018, and discuss the issues that are still paramount to the labor and racial justice movements.

As part of the campaign launch, AFSCME released the video below with archival audio from Dr. King’s "I’ve Been to the Mountaintop" speech, paired with images of protest from the 1968 strike to the present.

How did you decide to use the “I am” theme for the campaign? 

In 1968, the sanitation workers and their allies came up with a slogan, and it was “I am a man.” That slogan simply meant that they weren’t going to be treated as second-class citizens anymore. They were demanding to be treated with dignity and respect. Although we’ve come a long way since 1968, we still have a long way to go, and the theme is still very appropriate. So next year, the call is “I Am 2018.” And it’s going to take all of us as a community to come together and to fight back against what’s occurring in Charlottesville and across the country. The poison that’s being spread by the neo-Nazis, the White nationalists, the bigots and the racists—we’ve got to come together and say this is not what this country should be about. This is not what Dr. King stood for. This is not what the sanitation workers stood for in 1968, and we’re going to make our voices heard. We want this to be huge event, not only in Memphis, but also across the country. And [for it to] not stop on April 4 and say, okay, we’ve done what we need to do. The fight and the struggle will continue well beyond April 4 of 2018. We want to develop a strong army of people who will go back to their communities and talk about economic justice, civil rights and human rights for all and make the rallying cry. We believe this is the moment to do so.

This July, the City of Memphis made moves to compensate some of those workers from the 1968 strike who never received retirement benefits. They gave 14 of the surviving strikers $50,000 in tax free grants, and announced that improvements would be made for current employees. What are some issues we are still seeing today that are, in some ways, a legacy of 1968?

You mentioned retirement security. We’ve been fighting for pension in the City of Memphis for sanitation workers for many years after 1968. But retirement security is under attack for all working families. Pensions are not being funded in the public sector. There’s a move to move from a defined benefit program to a defined contribution program. That affects everyone, but it particularly has an impact on the African-American community, where African Americans move towards public service because they care about their communities. That was a way to achieve means to move into the middle class—and public services are under attack right now. We have to bolster the argument that public services are a commodity here in this country and they must not be attacked.

Workers at a Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, recently voted “no” to unionizing. Even though a lot was invested in the campaign, 60 percent of their mostly Black workerforce opposed the union. What are some issues that arise when organizing workers in places like the South where workers might face hostility?

Obviously, that was a major defeat. Not only for the UAW, but for the workers who were trying to organize. You will have some people say that the reason that campaign was lost was because of the weakened status of the labor movement. I don’t agree with that at all. What UAW was asking and what we were asking is that they have a choice, without coercion or threats, to decide for themselves whether they wanted a union or not. And, quite honestly, the playing field is not level as far as union organizing is concerned. The employer can do anything at any time to threaten and cajole workers, to intimidate workers, to actually fire workers sometimes. That’s the issue. If we had a level playing field, then we’d be able to organize. But if in fact workers are being threatened, and their jobs and families are being threatened, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that people are not going to put themselves in jeopardy. We’ve got to look at the root causes for why workers are being labeled as “troublemakers” if they want to make the decision—the democratic right—to decide whether they want to be part of the union or not. We believe the playing field is not level because employers can get away with anything and everything at any time.

Politicians often evoke labor movement language to appeal to White working-class communities. How do you deal with that appropriation of language and work across racial lines to build racial justice in a broad labor organization? 

We believe that every worker should have economic justice. That’s the link to bring together an organization, a union, a coalition that is made up of what the United States and what America look like—with Whites, with people of color, with LGBTQ people. That community, that’s what America looks like. And we need to talk about the economic justice issues and people having a fair shake in people achieving the American dream. I think right now people are very frustrated and angry because people don’t believe they’re getting a fair shake or that there’s a level playing field. And they believe the system is rigged. I think we’ve got to get back to basics as far as it comes to talking about an economic unit which enables everyone to lift themselves up, lift their families up, lift their communities up.

And how does racial justice factor into fighting for economic development via the new campaign? 

I grew up in a Cleveland, Ohio. My dad was a bus driver. In Cleveland, if you were an African-American when I was growing up, there were really three kinds of jobs that would move you into the middle class, and all of them were represented by labor unions. There was the post office. There was being a bus driver. There was working in the steel mills. All of those were unionized jobs that moved African-American families into the middle class, simply because you had the ability to sit at the table. You had the ability to bargain collectively over wages and benefits and working conditions, and you had a seat. You were treated as an equal as far as determining what was happening with your work life. Now, you’ve got collective bargaining under attack. Unions are under attack by the very wealthy and the rich and powerful at the expense of working families. We’re going to have to come together as communities recognizing that there is a benefit, not only for union members to have collective bargaining and strong unions, but for individuals who have never been a part of the union but have received the benefit based upon the strong unions. And strong unions, I believe, are defined by having strong communities. We’re going to have to get back to basics and bring all of our communities together to fight against those who don’t want us to have the freedom to have a seat at the table.