As one of the most recognized leaders of the labor movement in America for more than 35 years, you might think Lee Saunders' zeal to advance the cause of the working man might have mellowed. You would be wrong. In his first full year as President of the 1.6 million member AFSCME Union, Saunders is determined to re-energize embattled public service workers nationwide. So, what better place to relive and rekindle the fires of past and present struggles than by coming to Memphis to commemorate the sacrifice of Dr. Martin Luther King on behalf of the famed sanitation workers' strike 45 years ago this week.
"As Doctor King came to Memphis in 1968, we're bringing national leaders to Memphis. We're trying to re-energize and mobilize our communities and organize and educate our communities about the struggles that still continue," says Saunders. "Doctor King understood that there was value and there was importance in linking the labor movement, with the civil rights movement, with the faith-based community. With people that are just trying to make ends meet."
Joining Saunders in town for a panel discussion and then the renaming of a city street in honor of the 13-hundred striking workers King came to help, will be his son Martin Luther King III and activist Al Sharpton. But, rather than solely dwelling on history, Saunders is ready to throw the full backing of his politically active union behind the current contract negotiating efforts of AFSCME local 1733 with the city. Saunders leveled a shot above the bow toward the man he and the city employee unions hold responsible for the controversial 4.6 percent pay cut that's sent them economically reeling.
"It seems that the Mayor has forgotten about history and it seems that he wants to take us back to 1968."
But, just as King espoused decades ago, economics and civil rights are inextricably intertwined. It often produces the kind of financial class warfare Saunders contends where only organized labor continues the fight to even the playing field.
"We actually are standing in the way of that one percent who are trying to gain more power and more wealth at the expense of the 99 percent in this country who are playing by the rules every single day."
Just don't expect Lee Saunders to let up as long as he feels the struggle for the working men and women continues.