There was no shortage of resolve and determination when AFT affiliates from 37 state federations gathered in Washington, D.C., Jan. 7-9 for the new year's first order of business: crafting a comprehensive plan to defend vital public services—and the professionals who deliver them—from no-holds-barred attacks in today's perilous, divisive economic and political landscape.
The conference drew teams of AFT leaders from around the country, and their goal was to come up with effective union responses to some of the toughest challenges members face—including efforts to gut collective bargaining, attacks on pensions, and privatization of public schools and services. The responses to these and other challenges, AFT president Randi Weingarten told the group, must be as aggressive and as comprehensive as the threats in play.
"We are not going to give up, and we are not going to hunker down," simply waiting for crises to pass, the AFT president told union leaders. "What we need to do is engage in constructive problem solving—using all the means of power at our disposal."
That AFT power, she said, flows from five different sources: political action, effective communication, mobilizing union members, promoting ideas for constructive change and building partnerships across the community. These areas helped provide the focus in small-group sessions that centered on taxes, public deficits, pensions, healthcare, retirement security, school vouchers and other key topics.
AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka also addressed the conference, underscoring the need for comprehensive action. "This can't be a parochial fight—no union alone is big enough" to take on well-heeled, well-coordinated groups determined to silence the power and voice of a strong middle class. "It's time to take back the political momentum," he said.
Speakers at the conference's opening session included Ed Muir from the AFT's research and information services department, who said he expects this to be the worst year yet for the state fiscal crisis. "The demand for public services is going to be greater that it's ever been in our lifetimes," and the resources to perform these services are dwindling, he warned.
The deepening fiscal crisis is going to fuel continued attacks on public employees and their unions, including expanded efforts to roll back bargaining rights, Muir added.
Moody's Analytics chief economist Mark Zandi, who has advised both Democrats and Republicans on economic policy, told conference participants that his overarching message is that there are "reasons to be optimistic about the economy."
Zandi gave several reasons for his optimism, including the decline in U.S. household debt. But the No. 1 reason he gave is the fact that U.S. businesses, particularly large and midsize companies, are doing very well. "Profit margins are about as wide as they've ever been," Zandi said. "It's really no longer a question of whether businesses can go out and invest and hire," he said, noting that it's really a question of whether they are willing. [Mike Rose, Roger Glass, Kathy Nicholson]