The last several weeks have been especially busy for Lee Saunders but the union leader would have it no other way. He relishes a fight, particularly when it falls within the purview of labor and he sees this year's presidential contest as the perfect example of the stark choices Americans face.
Saunders, the first African-American president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees [AFSCME] has spent large chunks of time over the last few months on the stomp in swing states for the Obama administration.
"I've been here for 34 years and we're under attack like I've never seen," Saunders, 60, said during a recent interview about the assault by Republicans on organized labor. "They're not trying to hurt us, they're trying to take us out. We're a powerful force of 1.6 million people, 35 percent in state and local government and 6.9 percent in the private sector. They have been pretty good at decimating the public sector."
"We have to rebuild. We stand in their way as an organized force, boots on the ground and connected to the grassroots ... we'll continue to fight in Ohio, Wisconsin. We've got to fight in every state and mobilize. The challenges are great, people are under pressure."
To the question often asked by Republican challenger Mitt Romney about whether Americans are better off than four years ago, Saunders' answer was unequivocal.
"A resounding yes!" he said, ticking off the Affordable Care Act, the creation of millions of jobs, and the bailout of the automobile industry as examples of what President Barack Obama has done during the past four years.
"Is there more work to be done? Yes. He inherited a big mess [but] he's well on the way to rebuilding the economy and the working class, but he does have his enemies," said Saunders as he swiveled in his chair in his downtown Washington office.
Saunders acknowledged the myriad challenges unions across the country face. In Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker, under the aegis of the Koch brothers, eviscerated public workers'unions by signing a law limiting collective bargaining for the majority of public workers. Unions, however, were unsuccessful in recalling him. A Wisconsin state judge overturned the law and it's being appealed by Walker. Since 2010, Republicans have engaged in a sustained attack designed to weaken unions since they are major fundraisers for the Democratic Party. GOP-controlled legislatures have stayed busy and so far, 23 states have passed a right-to-work law that inhibits unions' power to collect fees from non-union employees. Walker and other anti-union politicians continue to target state and local employees.
And, voters in cities like San Jose and San Diego elected to cut retirement benefits for public employees in an attempt to balance shaky budgets, while the Los Angeles City Council has floated a plan to do the same for newly hired employees.
"We've taken some hits in some states," he said. "We're organizing 50,000 new members ... young people are the next wave. We're concentrating on AFSCME members 35 and under. It's important to [acknowledge] differences, accept it and change. Young people think differently, communicate in a different way, such as computers. We have to relate to them, talk to them, mentor them."
Saunders, who grew up in a union household where his father was a bus driver and his mom a professor at a local community college and community activist, said unions have to do a better job educating the public about the gains the entire society has made because of unions.
"Labor built the middle class," he said. "[Unions are responsible for] issues ... such as social security, Medicare, Medicaid, the 40-hour work week."
Saunders said union members were intimately involved with the Democratic National Convention with a number of union members serving as delegates. He said he believes in unions and also believes they have an important place in society.
"The president supports unions, supports the 99 percent and the 99 percent are suffering," he said.
Saunders said the Romney plan will set Americans back in a number of ways. For example, he wants to make the Medicare program a coupon program; gut Medicaid; and not raise taxes.
"It's unbelievable to me that they think that prescription would work," he said. "They don't get it. Romney said 47 percent would never support him – said they were bums – vets, seniors. This country is in a state. That's why we have to fight so hard."
Saunders said he planned to be actively campaigning in swing states until Nov. 6. He said he expected 80,000 union activists and staff to work tirelessly to re-elect Obama.
"We'll be leafleting, making phone calls, knocking on doors, talking to people who may not be union members," he said. "We'll never be able to compete with Romney and the Koch brothers. Members and non-members going door-to-door is huge. It will prove to be the turning point and will put the president back in office."
Saunders, a married father of two, said his 34 years in the union dovetails into his desire for public service.
"Based on my upbringing, I knew I wanted to do something to help people, be an advocate," he said. "I work to make lives better. I conducted research and collective bargaining at AFSCME. I traveled a lot. I enjoyed what I was doing. I have a high level of commitment and I am dedicated to being a fighter ... [the union offers] ... a better life and [is helping build] the middle class."
"I'm a fighter willing to think out of the box."
And until Obama can declare victory, Saunders said he'll be on the move.
"I'm on the road almost every weekend," he said. "It's important not to sit here in my office. I have to be where the members are. I have to walk shoulder-to-shoulder. We're going into battle. I work hard but I enjoy what I'm doing. It benefits not just the union but working families too."