Municipal Government

Saunders, Striving to Rally NY Unions, Promises Steady Fight at National Level

MONDAY, OCTOBER 25 — In what was billed as his first “Regional Town Hall Meeting,” AFSCME No. 2 Lee Saunders addressed DC 37 and DC 1707 leaders, staff, and rank and file at DC 37’s Barclay Street headquarters in lower Manhattan.

Firing up the crowd, DC 37 Executive Director Lillian Roberts laced into all-but-elected gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo, saying that “he can’t wait to snap into the Union – and I can’t wait to snap him back.”

Saunders – fresh from a narrow ballot victory as AFSCME Secretary-Treasurer over New Yorker Danny Donohue at last summer’s convention – got a warm response as he spoke forcefully about what he termed a critical effort to head off a midterm election victory by right-wing Republicans and Tea Partiers. Reacting to a recent Wall Street Journal article which named AFSCME as the nation’s largest political contributor, with $87.5 million spent so far – Saunders said the money won’t do any good if it sits in the bank and union-backed candidates lose big in the current election cycle.

He outlined a political effort to shore up alliances and prevent politicians from backsliding. “Sone politicians – even our friends – are saying, ‘maybe we have to extend the Bush tax cuts, and that’s dead-ass wrong. They figure their constituency is going to be against ending the tax cuts, but we’re their constituency, too. And we’ve just got to give them the backbone to do the necessary thing.”

The right-wing “wants to take us back to the 18th Century,” Saunders added. “We’re in the middle of economic class warfare, where one percent of this country is trying to control everything.” AFSCME, he said, “is one of the few institutions in the country with the ability, power and strength to stand in their way and say: you will not be successful.”

The subject of public employee pensions came up several times, and Saunders sought to rebut right-wing criticism that they’re either too expensive for municipalities or out-of-line with what private sector workers earn. “Public employee pension plans across the country have only a two percent debt,” he said – deficits that can be eliminated going forward. But, he conceded, “we’re getting a bad name because of folks who are double-dipping,” – often employees who retire and then return as managers to earn a second pension. “We have to be real honest about that,” he said, “but our members aren’t getting those kinds of benefits – our members are receiving average pensions of $18,000 to $20,000 per year.”

As far as private sector comparisons are concerned, the AFSCME Secretary-Treasurer recapped the dramatic erosion of defined benefit plans – now held by only 20% of private sector workers. Describing how workers are falling for the right-wing playbook, Saunders said private sector employees “are saying, if we lost it, you should lose it to. Instead,” he added, “[public sector unions] should be concentrating on getting those defined benefit plans back in the private sector.”

A note of genuine populism was raised by DC 37 Local 375 Delegate Jon Forster, who called for taxing the rich at higher rates and for a stock transfer tax. Saunders did not take up either idea.

AFSCME’s new playbook, Saunders said, will include a new internal communications strategy – the increased use of Skype, the free internet phone service, text messaging, and accelerated production of short and powerful videos – more aggressive financial auditing of member locals, and a greater resolve to build coalitions with partners around federal and state legislation.

On New York City issues, Saunders announced a press event for Wednesday, October 27th to call upon Mayor Bloomberg to reconsider his determination to close dozens of Day Care Centers. In response to a question from DC 1707 President Kay Medina, Saunders said he believed chances were good for a federal rule change bringing home care workers under FLSA, making them eligible, for the first time, for overtime. Winning that rule change would mean a dramatic improvement for many of AFSCME’s lowest paid members.

October 26, 2010

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