AFSCME union president urges members to stay strong

By Karen Florin

Groton — The president of the country's largest trade union for public sector workers is urging Connecticut members to fight back against "vicious attacks" on the middle class.

Lee A. Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, spoke at a conference Saturday at the Mystic Marriott. A polished orator whose style evoked the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Saunders said legislatures and governors are attacking union workers — and the U.S. Supreme Court is about to hear a case that threatens the future of organized labor.  

"The right to achieve that American dream is a civil right," he said. '"We must demand it."  

Approximately 32,000 Connecticut employees in state and local government, boards of education and the private sector belong to AFSCME, which represents 1.6 million members nationally.

The U.S. Supreme Court will be hearing arguments soon in Friedrichs vs. California Teachers Association, "a case that will determine, essentially, whether we continue to exist," Saunders said. The suit, brought on behalf of a group of 10 California teachers, claims a law that requires public employees to pay union dues as a condition of employment violates their employee rights. Should the teachers win, the country's public sector could become a "right to work" sector, undermining the power of the labor unions.

"The only way you have a healthy middle class is to have a healthy trade union movement in this country," Saunders said.

Citing an Economic Policy Institute report released in January, Saunders said the income gap between the top one percent and everyone else is wider in Connecticut than anywhere else in the nation. The report indicates that in 2012, the average income of the one percent was $2.7 million compared to the average of $52,000 for the remaining 99 percent.

"I don't have a problem with folks making money, but the rules are stacked against us," Saunders said.

Saunders laid out the union's agenda, including a new campaign called "AFSCME Strong" that focuses on communicating and organizing. In Hartford, AFSCME is backing proposed bills that would give about 300 probate workers in Connecticut the right to organize and enable private sector workers to establish retirement plans.

The Council 4 members, who spent the morning in workshops geared at re-engaging members in the fight for workers' rights, stood and clapped several times during Saunders' speech.

"It seems across the board, there is an effort to limit bargaining rights, to take away pension benefits, to take away wages and in general bring down the middle class three notches," said Angelo Callis, a youth and family therapist who serves as president of the Norwich City Hall labor union.

Callis said he thinks about the future of young people, for whom "life is so much harder in every way."

Carolyn Wilson, a health program coordinator who serves as president of the Ledge Light Health District, said pay and wage issues, health care and pensions are often on the chopping block.

"Unions are on assault constantly and we're sometimes demonized as being greedy and lazy, but mostly we're just middle-class people," Wilson said.

Union steward Uri Allen, a career counselor at the state Department of Labor's New London American Job Center, said that everybody benefits when people feel secure in their jobs.

"We have protections as public sector workers," Allen said. "Getting private sector workers to have the same protections improves the community as a whole."

About 6 percent of the nation's private sector workers are organized, compared with 36 percent of public workers, according to Saunders.

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