AFT member Joseph Drake named Champion of Justice

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Fourth-grade teacher Joseph Drake never dreamed a simple e-mail would earn him recognition from the national organization Alliance for Justice (AFJ), but on June 6, AFT president Randi Weingarten presented him with the Champion of Justice award at AFJ's annual Justice First! luncheon.

Joseph DrakeJoseph Drake with Alliance for Justice president Nan Aron, left, and AFT president Randi Weingarten.

It all began when Drake, a long-time teacher at Central Elementary School in Seagoville, Texas, read a news account of the 45-minute school day extension the district had approved this year. In the article, a school board trustee gloated about how the district would now get an eight-hour workday from its teachers—as if teachers don't already work full time and more.

"We get dumped on by the administration each day, cursed out by students, yelled at by parents, receive very little respect from the community, work long hours, and receive meager pay," Drake wrote to this trustee, Edwin Flores. "Individuals like you make this noble profession of teaching America's future leaders more and more miserable each day."

Forty-five minutes later, in the middle of a spelling test, Drake was called out of class and put on leave.

Drake's union, the Alliance-AFT in Dallas, called the incident "bullying," and pointed out that Drake's concerns were legitimate. Not only do teachers work hard, they have not had a pay raise in five years. For Drake, the father of six and sole breadwinner in his household, that is a hardship.

But this isn't just about Drake. The e-mail echoed concerns shared by many Dallas teachers, says Alliance-AFT president Rena Honea. In a climate where teachers work before and after school and on weekends, and where morale is already low, she says Flores' comments were "a slap in the face." Just as important, suspending Drake denied teachers a voice.

Weingarten praised Drake's courage as she presented his award. "People should speak truth to power," she said. "Voice is essential in a democracy. Voice is essential to educating children. Joseph Drake didn't allow his voice to get squashed. He is a voice on behalf of teachers and kids worldwide."

Also named Champions of Justice were Valencia Robinson, founder of Mississippi for Action, a nonprofit promoting reproductive rights; she helped fight and win a campaign to defeat the Mississippi "personhood" ballot initiative; and Nelini Stamp, a key organizer of Occupy Wall Street, who worked closely with labor to support the Occupy movement.

The luncheon also showcased AFJ's campaign to apply the Judicial Code of Conduct to the Supreme Court, and hosted former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold as keynote speaker. Feingold reviewed the recent recall attempt in Wisconsin, protested the assault on voter rights and championed the fight against corporate campaign financing. Then he echoed Weingarten's sentiment: "Speak truth to power." [Virginia Myers/photo by Liz Roll Photography]

June 7, 2012