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Union Leaders Discuss the Future of American Labor

During a discussion this past weekend on the future of American unions, AFSCME President Lee Saunders and the leaders of the three other public sector unions (AFTNEA and SEIU) discussed how, despite the Supreme Court’s decision in the Janus v. AFSCME Council 31 case and a 40-year attack by anti-worker interests, the labor movement remains energized, optimistic and ready to capitalize on the progressive momentum that’s sweeping the nation.

During the discussion, “The Future of American Labor: Initiatives for a New Era,” hosted by the Albert Shanker Institute, Saunders described AFSCME’s strategy going into the Janus case, and laid out goals for the future, chief among them organizing, relying on partners and allies to advance causes that improve the lives of working families, and calling on labor-friendly leaders to enact laws that work for working families.

Saunders said that AFSCME had been preparing for a verdict like the one in the Janus case for years.

“We were prepared for right to work and we knew that we couldn’t bury our heads in the sand,” he said. “We had to stay and fight. So, we went back to basics and developed a strategy called AFSCME Strong. It’s about talking to members or potential members one-on-one, listening to what they have to say, discovering what’s most important to them, and learning how we, as a union, can fight alongside them.”

After holding 1 million of those one-on-one conversations, Saunders said AFSCME has been able to lessen the blow of the Janus decision, and has converted some 310,000 former agency fee payers to full members. New member signups outpace member drops by a rate of 7-to-1.

The power of labor solidarity was also on display. Each of the four union leaders emphasized how important it is to stand together.

“We’ve got to stand with one another through the individual fights we wage,” noted Saunders.

He went on to say: “Our priority is organizing new workers to the trade union movement. Sixty-two percent of Americans believe that unions serve a vital role as a check against power and wealth,” said Saunders, referring to Gallup’s recent survey of Americans’ view toward labor unions, which stands at a 15-year high. “We stand as a block against that power for both union and nonunion members alike.”

Recent teacher’s strikeshotel workers’ strikes and women’s marches across the country, as well as last year’s I AM 2018 commemoration, all serve as opportunities for not just labor partners, but faith, civic, political and social justice groups to advocate for working families.

“We have to be smart about how we continue to link arms with other communities,” Saunders said. “The labor movement can’t do it alone. We’ve got to continue to build on this momentum and coordinate our work to fight back.”