By AFSCME President, Lee Saunders
Over five episodes released this spring, the podcast will cover the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, the struggles that sanitation workers continue to face today and the lasting cultural impact of the strike.
Washington, DC (April 24, 2023 – During the past month, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) has released several episodes of “The I AM Story,” a new podcast detailing the history and legacy of the historic 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike. The comprehensive series examines the origins of the strike and events leading up to the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated on April 4th, 55 years ago while in Memphis supporting the strikers.
“The deaths of Robert Walker and Echol Cole in the back of a garbage truck on that cold, rainy day in 1968 set off a strike in Memphis like no other,” said AFSCME President Lee Saunders. “Black sanitation workers took a courageous stand, a stand that drew the American labor movement and the civil rights movement together to change the course of our history.”
The podcast provides a front-row seat to the events that shook the nation, featuring strikers who were there and some of today’s leading civil rights icons, such as Martin Luther King III and Reverend James Lawson. Together, these powerful voices will guide listeners through history while also connecting the struggles of the past to the challenges facing working people now.
Fifty-five years later, the fight continues for fair wages, safe working conditions, collective bargaining rights and more. We are also still fighting to ensure that our children are able to learn this history, with radical politicians banning books like “Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop” from school shelves.
Underscoring the lasting impact of this moment on AFSCME’s history, President Saunders said, “In order to move forward, we cannot forget what happened in Memphis. The sanitation strikers put their lives on the line for dignity and respect on the job – not just for themselves, but for everyone being mistreated and everyone whose rights were being denied. We will continue to educate our communities and organize around the strikers’ iconic slogan, ‘I AM A MAN,’ which still holds so much power after all these years.”
Listeners can find the podcast on all major platforms, including Spotify, Pandora, Apple, Amazon, and Chartable.
AFSCME’s 1.4 million members provide the vital services that make America happen. With members in communities across the nation, serving in hundreds of different occupations — from nurses to corrections officers, child care providers to sanitation workers — AFSCME advocates for fairness in the workplace, excellence in public services and freedom and opportunity for all working families.
Lee Saunders is the president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO, with 1.4 million members in communities across the nation, serving in hundreds of different occupations – from nurses to corrections officers, child care providers to sanitation workers. He was elected at the union’s 40th International Convention in June 2012.
Saunders, the first African American to serve as AFSCME’s president, was previously elected secretary-treasurer at the union’s 39th International Convention in July 2010.
Saunders grew up in a union household in Cleveland, Ohio. This inspired him to join the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association (OCSEA) when he began working for the Ohio Bureau of Employment Services in 1975. His father was a bus driver and a member of the Amalgamated Transit Union. His mother was a community organizer and, after raising two sons, returned to college and became a community college professor and a member of the American Association of University Professors.
Saunders began his career with AFSCME in 1978 as a labor economist. He has served in the capacities of assistant director of Research and Collective Bargaining Services, director of Community Action and deputy director of Organizing and Field Services. Saunders also served as executive assistant to the president of AFSCME and was responsible for managing what is acknowledged to be one of the most effective political and legislative operations in the history of the American labor movement. AFSCME’s fundraising clout, member mobilization and lobbying expertise are unmatched in the ranks of the AFL-CIO and beyond.
Under Saunders’ leadership, the union has launched a program called AFSCME Strong that builds power through internal and external organizing and recognizes the individual contributions AFSCME members make to serving and strengthening their communities. The program is credited with growth in AFSCME membership despite current challenges faced by the labor movement as a whole.
He has served as administrator of a number of AFSCME councils and large local unions across the country.
For nearly four years, he served as administrator of AFSCME District Council 37, New York City’s largest public employee union, representing 125,000 members. In that capacity, he was successful in restoring the fiscal health, integrity and good name of the council and its 56 affiliated local unions.
Saunders serves as a vice president of the AFL-CIO Executive Council, which guides the daily work of the labor federation; he also serves as chair of its Political Committee. He is an at-large member of the Democratic National Committee, president of Working America and treasurer of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. He also serves as a board member of Priorities USA and the Democracy Alliance.
He received a Master of Arts degree from Ohio State University in 1974, a year after earning his Bachelor of Arts degree from Ohio University.
Saunders and his wife Lynne live in Washington, DC. They have two sons, Lee Jr. and Ryan, and three grandsons.