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President Lee Saunders gave the following acceptance speech at AFSCME’s 40th International Convention upon being sworn in as the union’s first ever African-American president

July 9, 2012

Sisters and brothers, I want to thank you for the tremendous honor you have bestowed upon me. Together, we will be partners in moving this great union of ours forward. Your faith in me means more than you will ever know.

I thank my wife Lynne and my sons Lee and Ryan for everything they’ve done – and everything they’ve dealt with – over these long, long months.

I have to thank Gerald W. McEntee – a fearless and visionary leader. A famous admiral once said: “There are no great men -- Just great challenges which ordinary men are forced by circumstance to meet.” With all due respect to the admiral, I must disagree. Gerald McEntee is a great man.

To my AFSCME sisters and brothers who were part of this journey, your belief that we were on the right road together lifted me up time and time again and truly kept me going. We waged this campaign for the future of our union and for the future of our members and working families throughout this nation. This was not my campaign. This was our campaign.

And of course, I want to congratulate my partner, Laura Reyes, on becoming the first female Secretary-Treasurer of AFSCME! Laura has broken the green glass ceiling for all the sisters of our union!

I want to say something to Danny Donohue. During the course of this campaign, we disagreed on a number of points, and at times, we disagreed strongly. But you are my brother and I know that on one central point, we are in full agreement: AFSCME is the greatest union in this nation, with the greatest activists anywhere. We ran for office because we both are deeply committed to the sisters and brothers of this union and I look forward to working with Brother Donohue – and with all of you – to move this union forward.

This was a campaign in which important issues were raised about the future of our union. We elected new leadership following the 31-year presidency of Brother McEntee. Such campaigns are never easy, and when they are waged in the midst of severe budget pressures, assaults on public services, and attacks on the character of public-service workers, they are even more difficult and more vigorously fought.

Because the stakes are so high, competing ideas were put forward about how to proceed. The campaigns painted very different versions of the present, and offered very different visions of the future. But the campaign is over. And today we start fresh. What unites us is our belief in and love for AFSCME. We arefamily, and we always will be.

Sisters and brothers, it does not matter whose button or t-shirt you wore. It does not matter whether you campaigned for Saunders and Reyes, or Donohue and Goff. It does not matter whether your colors were yellow and blue, or blue and green. As of right now, we are beginning again, with the knowledge that what lies ahead of us is far, far more important than the campaign we’ve just been through. We have an obligation to fight for the future, not re-live the past.

I said earlier this week that this is a defining moment, not only for our nation but also for our union. What we do will determine whether collective bargaining survives, whether members’ lives get better…whether retirement security is restored…whether public services are strengthened…and whether the American dream is renewed.

And so we must begin a serious, far-reaching national conversation with our members about the direction and priorities of our great union, including how we will ensure that our political strategy aligns with the severity and nature of our challenges.

We must continue the focus on organizing, even in hostile, Right-to-Work states, because we cannot win the fights of tomorrow unless we are growing today.

We must propose long-term solutions to strengthen pensions, emphasizing that most of our members pay into their pensions, and that those pensions contribute to local economies. To that end, I am appointing a special task force of IEB members who will study this issue, consult with experts, and put forward sound strategies.

We must work our hearts out to re-elect President Obama.

And we must holdHollllold politicians of all political stripes accountable for what they say and what they do. Because when it comes to what affects our members and our rights, it’s not about left versus right; it’s about right versus wrong.

And let me be perfectly clear about this: Our union does not work for any political party; we work for justice and fairness in the workplace. If someone takes us on, it does not matter whether they are a Democrat or a Republican, conservative or liberal. We are taking themon. And they are going down.

These are only a few of the tasks that are before us. The path ahead is difficult, but I have no doubt that if we put aside what divides us, focus on what unites us, and set our hearts on solidarity, we can achieve what seems impossible.

Let us go forth in solidarity…with one mission…with one goal: to build AFSCME into the strongest force it can possibly be for our members and for our nation.

Once again, thank you, God bless you, and for the sake of AFSCME, this union we all love – for the sake of each and every one of our members – let us all move forward together.

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