AFSCME President Lee Saunders on Earning Union Support  | NDTC

AFSCME is the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. If you grew up in a working class family, you may be familiar with this union or another. 

Currently, unions represent over 14 million Americans. And, you may be surprised to discover all of the ways in which they affect communities across the country. 

Outside of wage protection, contract negotiation, and ensuring quality working environments, unions mobilize their members to engage politically. 

President Lee Saunders discusses, in this candid conversation, AFSCME’s 2020 priorities and what it takes to work with a union for your campaign. 

Unions and their Workers Are Essential 

Why do you feel essential workers are crucial for the success and recovery of our country right now?

Lee Saunders: Members provide public services all over the country, whether it’s education, sanitation, transportation, or safety. They are nurses, hospital workers, childcare providers, social workers, custodians, and corrections employees. And, they make America happen every single day. 

Right now, they’re performing those jobs at great risk due to COVID19. In many cases, they don’t have the proper equipment that should be provided to them. But, they’re continuing to do their jobs. Not only are they putting themselves at risk, but when they go home, they’re putting their families at risk. We have to fight for them every single day. 

That’s what our union does. We fight for them. Right now, we are strongly pushing for The Heroes Act. This provides additional money to states, cities, towns, and school districts to continue the essential public services our members provide. These are everyday heroes risking their lives every single day.

Serving the Needs of Our Community 

How can Democratic leaders at all levels best support these workers and help them get back to work and by doing so, help the recovery of our community?

Lee Saunders: First, on the national level, we need to continue to push for The Heroes Act. Support for states and cities, additional protective equipment, safety and health measures, the continuation of health care is most important. These folks have been laid off due to a lack of funds. We have to understand and realize that the passage of The Heroes Act is not a partisan issue. 

The Issues

We have both Republicans and Democrats who support these funds. But, the inaction of Mitch McConnell, the President, and the Republican senators here in Washington, D.C., are stalling [the passage of the bill] every single day. 

Our members are confronted with these issues. It concerns them, and it concerns their families. They’re obviously concerned about what’s going to happen with the Affordable Care Act

Retirement security is another issue. Especially in the public sector, retirement benefits have been under attack. You don’t reward workers who have worked 35-40 years with reduced retirement in this country. 

Finally, our members deserve a seat at the table. That’s something that our unions provide for them. Yet, collective bargaining has been under attack in many states across the country. 

Fight for Inclusion and Fairness

In the public sector, we have to get collective bargaining state by state through legislative action. And, in states such as Iowa and Wisconsin, collective bargaining was essentially gutted from public sector workers. Now, they don’t have the ability to negotiate in a way that’s useful for them and makes a difference. You can’t negotiate wages, working conditions, or benefits. 

Our members want to be treated fairly, based upon the commitment that they show every single day. You do that by providing them with the ability to negotiate and  have a seat at the table. There, they can provide their thoughts and ideas on how public services should be provided to their communities across the country.

Reaching Union Workers and their Families 

We have candidates and campaign teams that are in this final stretch before the November election. What is the best way for them to reach your members and show they plan to support them and their needs if elected?

Lee Saunders: Talk to them. They want to hear from politicians who have sound advice. How will your programs be pushed, impact our communities, and support our families? 

We’re one of the most politically active unions in this country with 1.4 million members. They understand the importance of coming together to make their voices heard and fighting for their beliefs. 

Candidates have got to listen to what our members say and put themselves in their shoes. That’s how they’ll see the trials and difficulties that exist for our members to perform their jobs every single day. 

In this political environment, we’re doing a lot of phone banking. We’re texting and using digital media to flex our political muscle so our members have an opportunity to engage. 

I would consider this to be the most important election of our lifetime. That’s not only at the national level, but it’s also at the state and local level where our members live.     


Working with AFSCME

We have a lot of candidates that are wrapping up their campaigns for the next cycle. Looking ahead, how do you work with candidates from the early stages, as far as endorsement or support? How can they work with you from the beginning of their campaign?

Lee Saunders: Stay in contact with us. We have learned quite a bit with our political program. And, now we’re doing year-round organizing, mobilizing, and educating with our members and community partners across the country. 

Our members want to talk with those who are interested in running for office. They want them to understand their issues and come up with solutions in a very real way. The time is over where we used to engage folks in the final two or three weeks. 

We continuously communicate with our members. And, when we’re able to, we’ll start knocking on doors again, talking with our members and listening. We expect candidates, regardless of what they’re running for, to do the same.

3 Things Democratic Candidates Should Hear 

Is there anything else you would like to add that our candidates and local leaders need to hear?

Lee Saunders: 

  1. Don’t take anyone for granted. 
  2. Develop programs, strategies, and plans around the issues that confront your constituents and their families every single day. 
  3. Stand up for what’s right. 

Earn Union Support 

Under President Lee Saunders’ leadership, there’s no doubt that AFSCME works tirelessly on behalf of the American public sector worker. They fight for seats at the table and help promote democracy for all. 

Unions, like AFSCME, are endorsing candidates across the country every single election cycle. They can be the key to garnering support from volunteers, donors, and the general voting public.

Learn the ins and outs by taking our course in Earning Union Support, to jumpstart your campaign with these political powerhouses. 


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