Lee Saunders leads one of the nation's largest unions, with 1.6 million members.
Despite that massive total, he believes in the value of one-on-one conversations to connect with rank-and-file workers and understand their concerns.
Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME, made some connections in Buffalo last week. He came here to speak at an event presented by the Western New York Area Labor Federation, AFL-CIO.
"Nothing takes the place of sitting down and talking with members and non-members alike and listening to them, not dictating to them," Saunders said.
AFSCME, including members of CSEA Local 1000, represents more than 16,000 workers in Western New York.
The Buffalo Niagara region has high public sector union membership: 65.4 percent last year, which translated into about 57,000 workers, according to Unionstats.com. Statewide, 67 percent of public sector workers were union members, and nationally the figure was 34.4 percent.
"There's a proud history here, not only in the public sector, but the private sector," Saunders said.
New York State was home to the second largest number of unionized workers in the country last year, behind only California, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But nationwide, the bureau said, the number of wage and salary workers who belonged to unions in 2016 dropped by 240,000 from the year before.
Despite that trend, AFSCME increased its ranks by 12,000 members last year, Saunders said. It represents workers including nurses, corrections officers, child care providers and sanitation workers.
Saunders, meanwhile, said he has to ensure his union is working as effectively as possible for its members.
"We've got to take an honest approach at looking what we're doing right, but we've also got to evaluate what's not working and what we're doing wrong, so we can change that," he said. "We've got to change, because there are people out there who don't want to hurt us, they want to wipe us off the face of the earth. They want to take us out of the ballgame completely, because we still have the resources and the power to stand in their way."
The union a couple of years ago set a goal of its members having 1 million conversations with their colleagues about workplace issues that affect their lives, and so far has had 620,000 of those talks.
Saunders, who lives in Washington, D.C., is the first African-American to serve as president of AFSCME. The Cleveland native was elected last year to his second four-year term. Saunders said he has his own way of keeping in touch with the union's vast membership.
"I don't stay in the office," he said. "I think that some people believe that I'm a visitor when I'm in D.C. I come out to events like this."
Flo Tripi, CSEA Local 1000's Western region president, said Saunders' trip to Buffalo was a good example of his approach to his job. But she also appreciates seeing him on cable TV shows, getting his message out. "I think (members) respect that and they say, 'Oh, that's my president.' "
Richard Lipsitz Jr., president of the Western New York Area Labor Federation, said his organization has made an effort to bring prominent labor leaders like Saunders to town to speak. "We think our labor movement is certainly an active one that wants to stay relevant to the national issues." About 500 people attended Saunders' appearance.
Saunders backed Hillary Clinton for president, and a New York Times story last summer around the time of the Democratic convention called him an "increasingly important Washington power broker." But the political tide in Washington turned with November's presidential election. Saunders said the Trump administration has created "challenging times" for organized labor.
"We have a president who talked the talk – he talked about how he was going to be helping working families, he was going to be supporting working families, and he's not walking the walk, and I think that we've got to educate our folks and talk to them about the issues that he's supporting, that hurt working families," Saunders said.
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