Person

Lee Saunders

AFSCME portrait of President Lee Saunders. (link) by AFSCME is licensed CC BY 2.0 (link)

Lee Saunders is a government worker labor union official who currently leads the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the largest union of government workers who are not teachers in the United States and a staunch supporter of multi-issue left-progressive politics. [1] In conjunction with his role as head of AFSCME, Saunders holds board positions with a number of institutional labor union and left-progressive organizations including the AFL-CIO labor union federation, the Economic Policy Institute labor union-aligned think tank,[2] and the Democracy Alliance liberal donor convening. [3] Saunders has been an at-large member of the Democratic National Committee[4] and spoke at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. [5]

Saunders is a career union official, having risen through the ranks of the national union office as a union employee, a national union officer, and an appointed trustee of AFSCME affiliates. He succeeded Gerald McEntee as head of AFSCME in June 2012; McEntee had positioned Saunders to succeed him by securing Saunders’s election to AFSCME’s number-two post in 2010. [6]

Union Career

Employment

Saunders began his career in 1974 working in the Ohio Bureau of Employment Services; he joined the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association (AFSCME Local 11) at that time. He would join the AFSCME staff in 1978 as a labor economist; over a 40-plus year career at AFSCME headquarters, he would rise through the positions of assistant director of Research and Collective Bargaining Services, director of Community Action, deputy director of Organizing and Field Services, and executive assistant to AFSCME president Gerald McEntee. [7]

District Council 37 Administration

In the late 1990s, AFSCME appointed Saunders administrator of District Council 37 as the Manhattan District Attorney was conducting investigations into corruption in the New York City AFSCME local unit. Saunders took over vowing to adopt a more militant approach in negotiations with then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R). [8] Saunders was criticized for not appointing two officials who had exposed corruption in District Council 37 to executive board posts. [9] District Council 37 emerged from administration in 2002, and Saunders returned to work at the national AFSCME union. [10]

Secretary-Treasurer

In 2010, Saunders, at the time executive assistant to AFSCME president Gerald McEntee, stood for the union’s number-two position, secretary-treasurer. With McEntee’s support, Saunders won election; however, internal discontent with McEntee’s approaches to organizing and member engagement made the election close, with Saunders’s margin of victory being approximately 4,000 votes of one million votes cast. [11]

AFSCME Presidency

Lee Saunders was elected president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) at the union’s 40th International Convention in June 2012. [12] Saunders narrowly defeated Danny Donohue, leader of the Civil Service Employees Association of New York (CSEA), who challenged the McEntee-Saunders administration’s federal-focused political strategy. [13]

Labor Activities

Saunders’s presidency has been marked by major changes to the landscape of government worker collective bargaining. After Wisconsin’s passage of restrictions on government worker bargaining in 2011 and the defeat of a union-backed recall effort targeting then-Gov. Scott Walker (R) in 2012, other states considered measures to curtail the practice after the 2014 and 2016 elections. [14] After the 2018 and 2019 elections, in which AFSCME-backed Democrats took control of Nevada[15] and Virginia state governments, those states reversed longstanding bans on government worker collective bargaining. [16]

In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled in Janus v. AFSCME Council 31 that government workers could not be forced to pay dues to a labor organization as a condition of employment. When the Court took the case in late 2017, Saunders had issued a joint statement with the heads of the National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, and Service Employees International Union denouncing the suit and defending forced fee arrangements. [17]

Saunders has criticized the Trump administration’s labor policies, notably objecting to President Trump’s decision in 2019 to nominate Eugene Scalia, son of the late Supreme Court Justice Anton Scalia, as the head of the Department of Labor. Saunders denounced Scalia’s record, saying it “indicates support for unchecked corporate power and neglect of the welfare of working people,” and that “AFSCME members will be watching closely during his confirmation hearing to see if he would lead the Labor Department in a way that is consistent with its mission.” [18]

Political Activities

In 2016 AFSCME “spent $55.3 million on “political activities and lobbying” in 2016 compared to the $36.4 million in expenditures related to “representational activities,” such as contract negotiations and grievance managements for its membership, according to its 2016 federal labor filings.” [19]

In 2016, Saunders supported former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary and in the 2016 presidential election, which was against Donald Trump. Saunders was particularly supportive of Clinton over Bernie Sanders. In fact, he praised Hillary Clinton for her primary victories in Florida, Ohio, and North Carolina saying people turned out to vote for Clinton because they “trust her to be the champion our families need in the White House and to deliver on her promise of breaking down the barriers that hold our communities back.” Moreover, Saunders said that this is “why the majority of union members nationwide chose to endorse Hillary Clinton and are supporting her at ballot boxes and caucuses across the country.” [20]

Saunders described how AFSCME organized around supporting Hillary: “AFSCME public service workers helped to lead the joint-union GOTV efforts that were instrumental to Secretary Clinton’s victories. AFSCME members in yesterday’s primary states joined with other working families to knock on tens of thousands of doors and turn out thousands of early vote supporters.” [21]

Saunders allegedly expressed that “his feelings were hurt” in 2016 when the Clinton campaign left him off of a list of progressive supporters that included a number of government-sector labor union officials. According to emails hacked from the Clinton campaign by entities believed to be fronts for Russian military intelligence, campaign officials asked John Podesta to intervene and “smooth things out” with Saunders over the perceived snub. [22]

Other Associations

As president of a major international labor union with close ties to the Democratic Party, Saunders holds positions with a large number of prominent left-progressive and liberal organizations both inside the labor movement and aligned with broader left-of-center advocacy. Saunders was also a superdelegate to the Democratic National Convention in 2016 and supported former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for president. [23] Saunders is also a member of the Democratic National Committee for the 2016-2020 term. [24]

The Daily Caller also reported that Saunders, as of 2014, was part of numerous left-leaning groups including being treasurer of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, president of the AFL-CIO affiliate for non-union workers Working America, chairman of the board of Americans United for Change, and a board member of the National Action Network (Al Sharpton’s group). [25]

While Saunders is no longer on the NAN board,[26] he sits on the boards of the AFL-CIO labor union federation, the Economic Policy Institute labor union-aligned think tank,[27] and the Democracy Alliance liberal donor convening. [28]

References

  1. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Annual Report of a Labor Organization (Form LM-2), 2017, Schedules 16 and 17 ^
  2. “Board of Directors.” Economic Policy Institute. Accessed March 10, 2020. https://www.epi.org/about/board/. ^
  3. “Lee Saunders.” Democracy Alliance. Accessed March 10, 2020. https://democracyalliance.org/people/lee-saunders/. ^
  4. Weingarten, Randi, and Lee Saunders. “If Democrats Are the Party of the People, Let’s Act like It.” CNN. Cable News Network, June 18, 2018. https://www.cnn.com/2018/06/18/opinions/democrats-right-to-curtail-power-of-superdelegates-weingarten-saunders/index.htm ^
  5. Politico. “DNC 2016 Schedule of Events and Speakers.” POLITICO, July 25, 2016. https://www.politico.com/story/2016/07/dnc-2016-schedule-of-events-and-speakers-225617. ^
  6. Smith, Ben. “McEntee Protege Takes Key Union Spot.” POLITICO, July 1, 2010. https://www.politico.com/blogs/ben-smith/2010/07/mcentee-protege-takes-key-union-spot-027922. ^
  7. “Lee Saunders.” AFSCME, February 14, 2020. https://afscme.org/about/leadership/lee-saunders. ^
  8. Greenhouse, Steven. “Union Scandal Could Produce A Tougher Negotiating Stance.” The New York Times. The New York Times, December 20, 1998. https://www.nytimes.com/1998/12/20/nyregion/union-scandal-could-produce-a-tougher-negotiating-stance.html. ^
  9. Greenhouse, Steven. “2 Who Exposed Corruption in District Council 37 Not Chosen for Board.” The New York Times. The New York Times, February 12, 2000. https://www.nytimes.com/2000/02/12/nyregion/2-who-exposed-corruption-in-district-council-37-not-chosen-for-board.html. ^
  10. Greenhouse, Steven. “Trustee Ends His Oversight Of District 37; Chief Chosen.” The New York Times. The New York Times, February 27, 2002. https://www.nytimes.com/2002/02/27/nyregion/trustee-ends-his-oversight-of-district-37-chief-chosen.html. ^
  11. Scheiber, Noam. “A Power Broker Who Wants Labor at the Table, Not on the Menu.” The New York Times. The New York Times, July 29, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/30/business/a-union-power-broker-in-an-age-of-insurgencies.html. ^
  12. “Lee Saunders.” AFSCME, https://www.afscme.org/union/leadership/lee-saunders. ^
  13. Hananel, Sam, and Stewart Cairns. “Rift over Political Spending Divides Huge Union.” Washington Examiner, June 9, 2012. https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/rift-over-political-spending-divides-huge-union. ^
  14. Watson, Michael. “Government Unions after Wisconsin.” Capital Research Center. Capital Research Center, July 25, 2017. https://capitalresearch.org/article/government-unions-after-wisconsin/. ^
  15. Leonard, Kristyn. “Nevada State Workers Moving Closer to Collective Bargaining after Gaining Right Last Year.” The Nevada Independent , January 20, 2020. https://thenevadaindependent.com/article/nevada-state-workers-moving-closer-to-collective-bargaining-after-gaining-right-last-year. ^
  16. Associated Press. “Virginia Lawmakers OK Limited Public Sector Bargaining Bill.” Education Week, March 9, 2020. https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2020/03/09/virginia-lawmakers-ok-limited-public-sector_ap.html. ^
  17. Higgins, Sean. “Union Leaders Criticize Supreme Court for Taking Dues Case.” Washington Examiner, September 28, 2017. https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/union-leaders-criticize-supreme-court-for-taking-dues-case. ^
  18. Daley, Kevin. “Trump Will Nominate Gene Scalia, Son Of Late Justice, For Labor Secretary.” The Daily Caller. The Daily Caller, August 27, 2019. https://dailycaller.com/2019/08/27/labor-secretary-eugene-scalia/. ^
  19. Bill-Mcmorris. “Government Workers Union Spent $20 Million More on Politics than Representing Members.” Washington Free Beacon. Washington Free Beacon, June 2, 2017. https://freebeacon.com/issues/union-spent-20-million-more-on-politics-than-representing-members/. ^
  20. “AFSCME Pres. Lee Saunders on Hillary Clinton’s Victories in Florida, Ohio, Illinois, and North Carolina.” AFSCME. Accessed January 30, 2020. https://www.afscme.org/news/press-room/press-releases/2016/afscme-pres-lee-saunders-on-hillary-clinton-march-15-victory. ^
  21. “AFSCME Pres. Lee Saunders on Hillary Clinton’s Victories in Florida, Ohio, Illinois, and North Carolina.” AFSCME. Accessed January 30, 2020. https://www.afscme.org/news/press-room/press-releases/2016/afscme-pres-lee-saunders-on-hillary-clinton-march-15-victory. ^
  22. McMorris, Bill, :”Clinton Snubbed AFSCME”, Washington Free Beacon. Accessed January 20, 2020.[/note

    Controversies

    In 2014, Saunders cut AFSCME’s ties with the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), a group that supports African-American students who attend historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) after the UNCF took a contribution from libertarian philanthropist Charles Koch. [note]Jackson, Raynard. “Lee Saunders’ Union Is Wrong To Cut Ties With UNCF Over Koch Funding.” The Daily Caller. The Daily Caller, July 21, 2014. https://dailycaller.com/2014/07/21/lee-saunders-union-is-wrong-to-cut-ties-with-uncf-over-koch-funding/. ^

  23. “Lee Saunders.” Ballotpedia. Accessed January 30, 2020. https://ballotpedia.org/Lee_Saunders. ^
  24. Weingarten, Randi, and Lee Saunders. “If Democrats Are the Party of the People, Let’s Act like It.” CNN. Cable News Network, June 18, 2018. https://www.cnn.com/2018/06/18/opinions/democrats-right-to-curtail-power-of-superdelegates-weingarten-saunders/index.htm ^
  25. Jackson, Raynard. “Lee Saunders’ Union Is Wrong To Cut Ties With UNCF Over Koch Funding.” The Daily Caller. The Daily Caller, July 21, 2014. https://dailycaller.com/2014/07/21/lee-saunders-union-is-wrong-to-cut-ties-with-uncf-over-koch-funding/. ^
  26. “Board of Directors.” NAN. Accessed March 11, 2020. https://nationalactionnetwork.net/newnews/board-of-directors/. ^
  27. “Board of Directors.” Economic Policy Institute. Accessed March 10, 2020. https://www.epi.org/about/board/. ^
  28. “Lee Saunders.” Democracy Alliance. Accessed March 10, 2020. https://democracyalliance.org/people/lee-saunders/. ^
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