This election year, the stakes are too high for organized labor not to be a path forward

By Norman & Velma Hill

Jackson Advocate Guest Writers

As the dust clears on the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., little good (read no good at all) was voiced about the future of organized labor in this country. This comes on the heels of an African-American labor leader being elected to head one of the largest public employee labor unions in the nation. This, like electing an African-American U.S. President, is a historic first with historical reverberations yet to be realized. Today, Lee A. Saunders helms the 1.6-million-member American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Saunders, who has received scant mention in the national media, faces an era when organized labor is under blistering assault, including by the likes of the Romney-Ryan ticket and its supporters. Yet, the Saunders election remains important, and vastly more important in this election year. For starters, the AFSCME president plans to allocate $100 million on political campaigns this year, 65 percent of it for non-federal campaigns. That is essential because public employees have been the primary target of state and local Republicans seeking scapegoats for budget deficits. We live and, if we are fortunate enough, work at a time when one-third of this nation’s public employees are unionized, compared to just 7 percent of private-sector workers.

That gives public employee unions like AFSCME an outsized influence on organized labor, which has suffered a severe downturn in membership since the mid-1950s. Back then, about one-third of the overall American workforce belonged to unions, while today that figure is closer to ten percent. And back then, towering national leaders, including African-Americans A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, argued that there was a natural nexus of the aims and aspirations of the civil rights and labor movements.

Many have forgotten that the full name of the landmark 1963 March on Washington included the words “for Jobs and Freedom.” Randolph, president of the first black-led labor union to gain a contract from a major company, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, long connected human dignity to the right to a decent job at a decent, living wage. We are convinced that the same is true for Saunders, who since 2010 had held his union’s second-highest post as its secretary-treasurer. Saunders, the son of a Cleveland, Ohio, bus driver, has the opportunity to pick up the mantle of The Movement politic and reinvigorate organized labor by emphasizing the relationship between civil rights and economic justice. In some ways this reflects a central tenet of Rustin’s 1965 call to action, From Protest to Politics.

In it, Rustin wrote “The labor movement, despite its obvious faults, has been the largest single organized force in this country pushing for progressive social legislation.” The union movement has been the most democratic, integrated mass organization in the United States. Saunders’ presidency of a large, black-minority union puts an exclamation point to such a characterization. No doubt black trade unionists seeking high leadership posts will be encouraged. The delegates also chose Laura Reyes as its first woman secretary-treasurer. Saunders’ election carries additional significance. His opponent criticized the union’s previous longtime leader for overspending on national elections.

Saunders rightly disagrees. Control of the White House and Congress, and its consequences for the U.S. Supreme Court’s composition – never more clear in the 5-4 decision upholding President Barack Obama’s Affordable Healthcare Act – are of paramount importance. A more progressive Congress could reform American labor law to give unions a level playing field in organizing. Hundreds of thousands of public-sector workers have been laid off, and deficits have been used as an excuse to rip into the collective bargaining rights of workers. Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker, backed by fellow Republicans in the state legislature, did just that last year. His survival of a recall election last month was a major defeat for unions and the middle class.

But Saunders and AFSCME reject the commonplace idea of irrevocable union decline. Just as important as the Wisconsin vote, they point out, was the big victory in Ohio last November in which 62 percent of voters – significantly higher than the 53 percent that voted for Walker – backed repeal of a law gutting the bargaining rights of civil servants. Also, Democrats captured the Wisconsin state senate. Saunders is seeking more wins with stepped-up militancy. For example, he is already working to promote a referendum for repealing a shockingly anti-democratic law: a 2011 Michigan statute allowing the governor to replace elected local governments facing deficits with “emergency managers” empowered to reduce deficits by revoking public employee contracts.

This puts Saunders on the side that unions customarily find themselves — the side of democracy. He also pledges stronger opposition to the privatization of public services, which always leads to lower wages and often to inferior services. And Saunders is creating a task force to find answers to the pension crisis that may stymie further drives to cut pensions. We can feel A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King Jr., and others who have been friendly to labor, giving Saunders a sort of cosmic nod of approval. Now Saunders and his AFSCME membership must be bold enough to continuously forge a path that history will fondly remember.

Norman Hill was the staff coordinator of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, is president emeritus of the A. Philip Randolph Institute. Velma Hill, a former vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, is also the former civil rights and international affairs director for the Service Employees International Union. Both are completing their memoir, Climbing Up the Rough Side of the Mountain.