AFSCME President Lee Saunders at Morehouse College ‘Crown Forum’

Prepared Remarks for
AFSCME President
Morehouse College “Crown Forum”
Atlanta, Georgia
October 21, 2021

[as prepared for delivery]

Good morning – and thank you, Dr. Hewitt, for that kind introduction. I’m pleased that we’re able to gather in person, even if it’s in smaller numbers. I appreciate you all coming out today and I’m grateful for this opportunity to participate in a tradition as long and rich as the Crown Forum. I’m especially honored to be the first international union president ever to be a featured speaker in this series. So, let me start by taking a few minutes to tell you what my union, AFSCME, is all about.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is a union of 1.4 million members providing public services all across the country. We are the everyday heroes who keep your communities safe and strong. And never more so than during this pandemic – when AFSCME members have stood on the front lines under some of the most difficult and dangerous working conditions imaginable.

We work in your schools, from Head Start to K-12 to the university level. We work in your hospitals and museums, your courthouses and libraries. We are EMTs and 911 dispatchers. We are home care workers and child care providers. We work with people with disabilities and society’s most vulnerable, marginalized people. We inspect the bridges and manage parks and recreation areas. We pick up the trash and make sure you have clean running water. You’ll see us plowing roads in the winter and even lifeguarding at the neighborhood pool in the summer. We make your cities, your towns and your neighborhoods happen.

It’s unsung, unglamorous work. It never made anyone rich and famous. But that’s not why people choose these careers. They choose it because it matters…because it’s an opportunity to serve a cause bigger than oneself…because it’s more than a job, it’s a calling.

These are also the very jobs that, for decades, have allowed African Americans to build a better life in a country that slammed most doors of opportunity in our faces.

When I was growing up in Cleveland in the 1950s and 60s – and I know I don’t look that old – there were essentially three viable pathways to the middle class for Black families. You could work for the industrial manufacturing mills that were the lifeblood of so many midwestern communities. You could work for the United States Post Office. Or you could work in public transit. What did those three pathways have in common? They all came with a union card.

My father was a city bus driver. And because he was a member of the Amalgamated Transit Union, we were able to have a reasonably comfortable life. It’s not like we were living on easy street or anything – not by a long shot – but we had some measure of economic security and stability. I have no doubt that many Morehouse students stand on the same kind of shoulders – sturdy shoulders muscled up by the labor movement – that I do.

The labor movement has a long history of leaning into the struggle for civil rights and racial justice. Beginning in the 1920s, A. Philip Randolph organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, helping rail employees of the Pullman Company overcome a union-busting boss and become the first majority-Black union to be chartered by the American Federation of Labor.

I want to be clear: that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been racial tension within organized labor through the years. But going back decades and to this day, labor has put skin in the game when it comes to racial and social justice. Labor helped underwrite the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the mid-1950s. The United Auto Workers provided resources that allowed Brown versus the Board of Education to be brought all the way to the Supreme Court. We financially supported the March on Washington movement in the 1940s, the 1960s and now in the 2020s.

Today, labor – and AFSCME specifically – invest in a host of civil rights organizations and movements: the NAACP, Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, as well as groups dedicated to the rights of the Latinx community, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, LGBTQ plus people, and more. We have been major backers of trailblazing elected officials from Andrew Young and Maynard Jackson to Stacey Abrams and Senator Raphael Warnock. And we will support several of you when you step into a leadership role in the social justice movement, or when you run for public office to continue the fight to give working people a voice on the job. 

The civil rights movement and the labor movement have historically shared common values… but also common enemies. The same powerful forces who’ve wanted to destroy unions also wanted to oppress black people. So-called right-to-work laws, which undermine the freedom of working people to band together in a union, actually have their roots in the white supremacy of the Jim Crow South. Right to work was specifically designed to stoke racial hostilities, to drive a wedge between white workers and black workers, to keep them from finding common cause.   

Right to work’s most influential advocate was a Texas oil lobbyist named Vance Muse, an unapologetic Ku Klux Klan supporter. In 1944, Muse’s organization, the Christian American Association, was spearheading an anti-union right-to-work campaign in Arkansas, and one of their arguments was that right to work was essential to maintaining segregation. Here’s the language they used in their literature. If right-to-work failed, they said – and I’m quoting here – then “white women and white men will be forced into organizations with black African apes… whom they will have to call ‘brother’ or lose their jobs.”

Around this same time, A. Philip Randolph launched the March on Washington movement. The original march was set to take place in 1941, but it was canceled after one of the principal demands was met by President Roosevelt – the creation of a new commission to investigate racial discrimination in defense contracting.

It would be two decades later that the March on Washington finally convened, spearheaded by Randolph and another labor leader named Bayard Rustin. It was the most storied civil rights gathering in American history to that point, but it was more than a protest against Jim Crow. It was also a demonstration for workers’ rights and economic empowerment. The full name of the event, in fact, was the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”

The marchers’ demands included not just voting rights and school desegregation, but also a higher minimum wage and major investments in job training. The “dream” that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of that day wasn’t just that we be judged by “the content of our character” instead of the “color of our skin.” It was also, as he outlined in the opening of the speech, that Black people no longer live “on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”

Dr. King had an innate belief and understanding that racial justice could not be separated from economic justice, that they are really one and the same…and that strong unions were essential to creating both. How can you overcome segregation without overcoming deprivation? How can there be racial emancipation without economic opportunity? How can there be freedom unless there’s freedom from want?

That takes me to 1968, and one of the signature moments in labor history, in civil rights history and in American history. 1,300 African American sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee – represented by my union, by AFSCME – faced brutal, oppressive, degrading conditions on the job. They earned poverty wages. They were called “boy.” They were essentially working in a modern-day plantation.

In February of that year, two of the workers were crushed to death by a malfunctioning sanitation truck, a gruesome tragedy that could have been avoided if the city had heeded the workers’ repeated warnings about unsafe equipment. That was the galvanizing moment. With their families, their community and their churches behind them, the sanitation workers went on strike. They wanted the city to recognize their union, but also to recognize their basic humanity. 

It was an act of astonishing fearlessness for black public employees to go on strike in the South in 1968. But that’s exactly what they did. They marched in the streets, braving tear gas and nightsticks, under a simple, defiant but powerful slogan: I AM A MAN.

At the time, Dr. King had launched the Poor People’s Campaign. More than ever before, he was putting issues of economic justice front and center in his work. So, he was drawn to the sanitation workers’ struggle, traveling to Memphis to show his support and solidarity, declaring that “all labor has dignity.” To him, this strike represented everything that the next phase of the civil rights movement had to be about.

It would be his last campaign. One night after delivering his iconic “Mountaintop” speech at Mason Temple in Memphis, he was assassinated as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. And a few weeks later, the strike ended, with the city accepting most of the sanitation workers’ demands.

A few years ago, AFSCME marked the 50th anniversary of these extraordinary events by launching a campaign called I AM 2018. We thought it was critical not just to look back at the past, but to take stock of where we are in the present, and to create a roadmap for the future. Instead of just looking back at Dr. King and the sanitation workers with admiration, we needed to look to them for inspiration. This I AM 2018 campaign wasn’t just about reflection, but about renewal. It was more than a commemoration; it was a call to action.

A call to action to work for change at the grass roots every single day – neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block. A call to action to fight both poverty and prejudice. A call to action to connect the Memphis story to today’s challenges. A call to action to summon the courage of the sanitation workers in the ongoing struggle for racial and economic justice.

I don’t have to tell you that that struggle is ongoing…that our work is unfinished, that systemic racism is alive and well in our country. The violent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many others are a devastating reminder of that enduring fact of life in America.

But I also believe that these horrific tragedies have awakened more people to the reality of racial injustice. They have given rise to a new wave of activism that gives me hope for the future. That activism is based on anguish over generations of entrenched racial inequalities and under-investment in communities of color. It’s about disparities in health care, housing, education – which have been made worse by COVID. It’s anger about a rigged economy that privileges people already standing on third base, while millions of people of color can’t even buy a ticket to the game.

I have three grandsons – 6 years old and younger. And I lose sleep over the thought that their fathers will have to have “the talk” with them, just like I had with my boys and just like my parents had with me. I want them to grow up in a country where they don’t have to be afraid to walk or drive in their own neighborhoods – or anyone else’s – at night. I want them to become men in a country that affirms that black lives matter.

At this moment of reckoning on race for the entire nation, I promise you that AFSCME’s voice will be front and center, just as it has been throughout our history…because the fight for civil rights is part of our DNA. The entire labor movement has a responsibility to root out explicit and implicit bias wherever we see it.

And that includes inside our own house. As proud as I am of AFSCME’s record, we need to take a hard look in the mirror at ways we as a union are internally falling short of our ideals. How can we make sure that diversity, equity and inclusion are ingrained in the institutional culture – a part of all the decisions we make and priorities we set?

At the beginning of the year, I established a new Committee on Racial Equity, comprised of local AFSCME leaders from across the country, to do a deep dive on these issues. Their work is guided by the core conviction that we can’t just pay lip service to these principles; we must live them every single day. We’ve got to be the change we want to see. It’s not enough to be advocates for racial justice; we’ve got to be practitioners of racial justice. And good intent isn’t enough; there need to be measurable results.

But it’s not enough for AFSCME’s voice to be front and center. We need your voice to be front and center. The movement for racial and economic justice needs your energy and intelligence. A Morehouse education is a powerful thing. No matter what you do with it professionally, my call to action for you is to take your responsibility as citizens seriously.

That starts with voting. If you think your vote isn’t important, ask yourself why some people are trying so hard to take it away. That’s right – there’s an orchestrated effort, engineered by the same political forces who oppose civil rights and labor rights, to disenfranchise people of color. Hundreds of voter suppression bills have been introduced across the country this year. It’s all based on a pretty ruthless and immoral calculation. The folks behind this effort know that they lose when more people participate in the political process. They know they can’t win a fair fight, so they’re trying to rig our elections instead.

John Lewis shed blood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma 56 years ago, beaten within an inch of his life so that Black people could cast a ballot and be full partners in American democracy – there’s no way in hell we’re going to let that be taken away. What we need to do is expand voting rights, not roll them back – expanding early vote and mail-in voting, more drop boxes and polling locations, COVID protections for poll workers, and more.

But I’m asking you to do more than vote. That’s the bare minimum. I’m asking you to be advocates and activists. I’m asking you to mix it up and get in good and necessary trouble, as John Lewis always said. I’m asking you to be forces for change in your communities. Democracy is a contact sport, not a spectator sport. Get engaged. Raise your voice. Pull up a seat at the table. We need you there.

I would love it if you became involved in the labor movement, and please let me know if that’s where your aspirations are – we’ll sign you up right now. The truth is we are building and growing support every single day, especially among young people – unions have a 77 percent approval rating among people ages 18 to 34, according to the latest Gallup poll.

And we are in the middle, right now, of a rising wave of worker activism. The hashtag “Striketober” is trending on Twitter, as legions of people are walking off the job or threatening to do so.

More than 10,000 United Auto Workers members employed by John Deere, coal miners in Alabama, the folks who make your Fruit Loops and Rice Krispies at Kellogg’s, health care workers at Kaiser Permanente in California and Oregon – they are all raising their voice and showing their power. They are insisting on their fair share of the value they create. They are standing up to the boss and staring down injustice.

These aren’t decisions working people make lightly. Collective action like this comes with great risk and uncertainty. It requires workers to put the highest level of trust in one another. They are making huge, courageous sacrifices in order to get the dignity and respect they deserve.

This is as exhilarating a moment as any to become involved in the labor movement. It is one of the best places to be if you want to lead social change. But it doesn’t matter to me which specific issues, organizations or causes you embrace, as long as you’re part of the struggle for racial and economic justice.

I want to leave you with the words of Morehouse’s most famous alumnus. In his 1959 commencement speech here at his alma mater, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. urged graduates to see all of us as “caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality…I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.”

We must, quote, “rise above the narrow confines of our individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity. The individual or nation that feels it can live in isolation has allowed itself to sleep through a revolution.”

He added: “There would be nothing more tragic during this period than to allow our mental and moral attitudes to sleep while this tremendous social change takes place.”

I think that advice still resonates more than six decades later. Don’t sleep through social change. The cause of social justice – and the broader concerns of all humanity – are depending on you. Thank you very much.

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