LOS ANGELES: For Lee Saunders, the newly elected president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, defeat does not mean retreat.
Just the opposite: Less than a month after the union lost its fight to recall Wisconsin’s anti-labor governor, Saunders is already planning his next campaign. The union is seeking a referendum to repeal a Michigan law that lets the governor appoint emergency managers to run deficit-plagued cities and void their contracts with public sector unions.
“We hope to do in Michigan what we did in Ohio,” Saunders said, referring to his union’s success in backing a referendum last fall that overturned an Ohio law that curbed collective bargaining for public employees.
In speech after speech at his union’s convention this week, Saunders repeated, even shouted, the phrase, “We won’t back down.”
If anything, Saunders, who was the union’s secretary-treasurer until winning the presidency last week, is vowing to increase efforts to battle policies his union detests, including efforts to privatize government services and curb public employees’ ability to bargain collectively.
Stung by the many attacks on public employees, Saunders is eager to address some of the major points of contention between government officials and his union.
In the speech after he was sworn in as AFSCME’s first new president in 31 years, he said he was forming a task force to study long-term solutions to the pension crisis that has prompted many states and cities, convinced that their plans are woefully underfunded, to push for cuts in pension benefits.
“We’ve got to really figure out how to deal with the attack on pensions,” Saunders said. “Our members are being hurt all across the country. We don’t have all the answers, but we want to help come up with solutions.”
In a fiercely fought contest, Saunders, who is the union’s first African-American president, defeated Danny Donohue, the president of the union’s largest local, the Civil Service Employees Association in New York. Saunders received 683,628 votes (54 percent) to Donohue’s 582,358 (46 percent).
Saunders pledged to try to reunite his union after the divisive election campaign and to increase organizing efforts. By some estimates, membership has fallen by nearly 100,000, to 1.3 million, over the last year, largely because of government layoffs.
Pointing to the many furloughs and pay freezes his union’s members have agreed to, Saunders insisted it was wrong for critics to say that public sector workers have refused to share in the pain others have suffered during the downturn.
“When we enter into bargaining, our people understand that they don’t want to tear apart the community. They’re part of the community,” he said. “But we don’t want things shoved down our throats. We don’t want the collective bargaining process ignored.”
Saunders repeatedly praised his predecessor, Gerald McEntee, who transformed AFSCME into one of the nation’s most politically influential unions.
Two prominent Democrats have already attracted his union’s ire — New York’s governor, Andrew M. Cuomo; and the mayor of San Jose, Calif., Chuck Reed — because they both led moves to reduce pensions.