BUSINESS EXCHANGE: A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats

William Reed | 7/30/2014, 3 p.m.
A version of the iconic slogan "A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste" is playing out in the court ...
William Reed

A version of the iconic slogan “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste” is playing out in the court of public opinion and it’s a huge debacle, as a major union severs its ties with the United Negro College Fund (UNCF). Lee Saunders, the president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME, should receive the 2014 “Foot in Mouth” award for a letter he sent informing Michael Lomax, the chairman of the United Negro College Fund, that the union would be ending its partnership with the educational organization in September. The union is angry about a $25 million donation that UNCF accepted from Charles Koch. The billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch have become targets of Democrats and unions, alike.

Saunders’ letter smacks of politics and lacks Black leadership values for our youth to emulate: “Like many supporters of the UNCF, I was deeply troubled by your decision to accept $25 million from David and Charles Koch,” Saunders wrote. Saunders contends that the UNCF chairman “has taken actions deeply hostile to public employees”… and there’s “a profound betrayal of the ideals of the civil rights movement.” The union intends to end its relationship with UNCF in September. Saunders also described the Koch brothers as the “single most prominent funders of efforts to prevent African Americans from voting.”

If ever there was a case of ideological extremism, this is it. Instead of saying, there’s not much we agree on, but helping Black youth graduate from college is one of them. Let’s unite and do some good. However, in his huff, Saunders sacrificed AFSCME grants that have helped nearly a hundred Black students throughout the course of the AFSCME/UNCF program.

Heads turned when UNCF announced Charles Koch’s no strings attached $25 million donation to historically Black colleges and universities and loan assistance programs. In his nonsensical justification of his taking money away from Black students, Saunders claimed that the Kochs are openly hostile to Black people. “We are doing this as a result of actions taken by the [chairman] of the UNCF that are not only deeply hostile to the rights and dignity of public employees …” Saunders’ letter told Lomax. “I was truly stunned to learn that you attended and spoke at a Koch summit.” Saunders shot hundreds of Black students in the foot because he’s fixated on the premise that “The Koch brothers and the organizations they fund have devoted themselves for more than a decade to attacking the voting rights of African Americans.”

UNCF chairman Michael Lomax, perhaps too pleased with the Kochs’ donation to worry about losing $60,000 from AFSCME, said in a statement: “UNCF has over 100,000 donors with a wide range of views, but all believe in helping young students of color realize their dreams of a college education. For over 70 years we have never had a litmus test and we have asked all Americans to support our cause.”

What Black Americans need is good leadership. AFSCME’s relationship with the UNCF revolved around the AFSCME/UNCF/Harvard LWP Union Scholars Program, in which sophomore- and junior- college students work with AFSCME during the summer and receive scholarship support. That program ends September 1.

It’s time to brand what Saunders has displayed as “feckless leadership.” Amid the plight of Blacks in America, it’s sad when a man in a position to lift up race-specific programs suspends them instead. Similar random accusations represent the history of Blacks and unions. Throughout the past century, unions have been on both sides of the racial divide, sometimes fostering discrimination; other times welcoming minorities.

Saunders is the first African-American president of the 1.6 million-member AFSCME. Saunders holds a Master of Arts degree from Ohio State University. We wish him wisdom to think and act in a leadership capacity that advances Black causes.

Saunders shouldn’t stop AFSCME’s support of UNCF. If he needs a few bucks, he should poll his union partners for some of the $153 million they spend in political contributions. 

William Reed is publisher of “Who’s Who in Black Corporate America” and available for projects via BaileyGroup.org.