Under the banner of "We care. We fight. We show up. We vote,” more than 3 000 educators, health professionals and public employees came together for the biannual convention of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
During the 5 day convention held the second week of July, the AFT laid out a path for a strong union movement in the face of the recent Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court decision and right-wing attacks on unions in the United States. Engaging members, defending democracy, recommitting to union values and being engaged activists, were some of the main themes echoed throughout the convention.
Delegates also considered and voted on resolutions on a range of issues, including taking collective action to promote public education, fighting austerity and increasing funding for public services, tackling student debt, and creating a healthcare system that eliminates healthcare inequalities.
In her address to delegates representing the 1.7 million members, AFT president Randi Weingarten called on members to remain actively engaged to keep the union strong in the post-Janus era and to defend democracy and social justice.
Unions fighting for democracy
“This state of affairs is not normal. I cannot be silent and neither can you … Beyond demanding decency, we must defend democracy at this most crucial moment…We must be a check and balance for our democracy and for a society that is safe, welcoming and sane,” she stated in her address.
“America’s labor movement is central to defending democracy. Authoritarian governments invariably attack unions, seeking to undermine them, because unions have always been in the forefront of the fight for democracy,” she added.
“They know that working people gain strength in numbers,” Weingarten continued. “And they know working people do better when they join together in unions.”
Weingarten, who was re-elected to another term, explained that the Janus decision has in fact galvanized members to join and recommit to the AFT in record numbers. More than 530,000 members have recommitted to the union, and the AFT has reached its highest membership ever at 1,755,000 members.
“I am tired of politicians telling me what to do in my classroom”
In addition, the attacks on unions and the deteriorating working conditions of so many across sectors, has motivated nearly 300 AFT members to directly run for political office hoping to affect change in the policies that affect their profession.
“I am tired of politicians telling me what to do in my classroom. I am tired of politicians failing to give us better salaries, better evaluation systems and more autonomy,” Johanna López, an educator running for the school board in Orlando, Florida told the assembled delegates.
“I am done begging for attention from our elected officials. Instead, I am running to take their seats, and you should too. Teachers need to run for office, to mobilize their communities, to volunteer, to help elect other teachers and to defend the dignity of our profession,” she stated.
International challenges, international solidarity
As part of the convention program, Education International General Secretary, David Edwards moderated a dialogue with union leaders from around the world on the global threat to democratic societies and human rights. The forum convened by AFT president Randi Weingarten and hosted by the University of Pittsburg School of Education, focused on the vital role public education, public services and labor movements play in championing human rights and global solidarity.
“In a time where we see the rise of nativism, xenophobia, racism and attacks on democratic institutions, on the free press and even the dismissal and denial of science, our voice, our professional autonomy is crucial,” explained Education International General Secretary, David Edwards.
“All of you, all around the world have a role to play. From Poland, Palestine, Turkey and Zimbabwe, we are defending our most basic values,” Edwards added. “From our classrooms, to our union halls, to the streets and voting booths. We will speak out, stand up, and use our collective voice for social justice for our students, our schools and our communities
"Not an easy time to be an educator or a trade unionist"
Other prominent guests who addressed the convention include Hillary Clinton, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders.
Hillary Clinton, who received the AFT’s Women’s Rights Award, encouraged the delegates to “Keep going. Keep protesting. Keep speaking out for public education. Keep speaking out against gun violence.”
She added: “In this era of alternative facts, keep speaking up for the truth, for evidence, for reason. Keep educating our next generation of citizens. And yes, keep running for office at every level. Most of all, keep standing up for an America in which every child has a world-class education, where they are given the chance to be everything they can be.”
Senator Warren said that despite the current political landscape she had hope because “Across the country, educators are rising up, speaking out and fighting for the future of this country.” Those fights are made possible by unions like the AFT, she added. “Make no mistake, unions built America’s middle class and unions will rebuild America’s middle class.”
“This is not an easy time to be an educator or a trade unionist,” Senator Bernie Sanders told the delegates at the convention Sunday morning, but "if we stand up and fight back, if we educate and organize, if we show the courage and unity that this moment in history requires, I have no doubt that we are going to win and bring a beautiful future to our country.”
Leaders from other unions came together in a show of unity and resolve. AFSCME President Lee Saunders, NEA President Lily Eskelsen García and SEIU President Mary Kay Henry provided fiery inspiration for activists to keep caring, fighting and showing up for workers everywhere.