What better place than Chicago to shake up and invigorate the American labor movement one year after the country's Midwest Spring riveted the nation?The nation's heartland was the setting for this year's annual higher education issues conference. The spirit of insurrection permeated the event, as the meeting—and the union—pivoted to take a different direction than in years past.
For one thing, the conference, titled "Teaming with Community: Strategies to Win Educational, Economic and Social Justice," featured more roll-up-your-sleeves work and strategizing than passive listening. For another, it attracted not just seasoned faculty and staff. The meeting was energized by younger activists, students and graduate employees, and representatives of 17 community organizations as well. They shared an "Occupy the World" view that had the audience spontaneously grabbing hands and breaking into a chorus of "Solidarity Forever."(This was sparked by news of a federal court ruling that overturned some of the provisions of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's heinous anti-collective bargaining law.)
The need to expand labor's base could not be more urgent, warned AFT president Randi Weingarten: "We are facing an existential threat. Many times in past years, we have felt that people were out to get us. Now, it's true."
After the events of this past year, where we faced crises in 20 states; after decades of strategic attacks by well-endowed right-wing groups, such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (the drafter of regressive bills released like cluster bombs in legislatures across the country); after fierce attacks on public preK-12 and higher education, said Weingarten, "they think it is within their grasps to eliminate us. We now know the path forward is to fight back."
"We are drifting back to the days when higher education was the prerogative of the 1 percent," said Sandra Schroeder, an AFT vice president, president of AFT Washington, and chair of the AFT higher education program and policy council. "If access is narrowed, if higher education is privatized, it won't be the 1 percent that is hurt; it will be the 99 percent"—the people we serve.
"Partnerships are the answer," said Eric Zachary, director of the AFT human rights and community relations department. To illuminate the critical importance of community engagement, he led a panel discussing model partnerships between AFT locals and social justice counterparts in other community organizations.
"Every movement in this country that has been successful starts with students and labor together," said Weingarten. "We want to rebuild the movement. Community is the new density."
Plenary speaker John Nichols, Washington correspondent for The Nation and MSNBC, is a Wisconsin resident who chronicled the incredible Wisconsin uprising that began in February 2011 when Gov. Walker used a budget bill to decimate collective bargaining rights. "Our trade union brothers said, 'we're not strong enough to fight back.'
"Well, someone forgot to send the memo to the Teaching Assistants' Association," said Nichols, referring to the AFT local of graduate employees at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Fifty of them gathered on campus, then went to the state Capitol with heart-shaped balloons and signs reading, "Gov. Walker: Don't break our hearts," then pushed open the doors and went through. They were joined by first hundreds, then thousands, then more than 100,000 citizens who would not leave. It was the beginning of the Occupy movement, said Nichols.
"In Wisconsin, we don't need to have a community engagement program. The community engaged 100 percent because they know labor rights are human rights."
In three extended workshops, participants rolled up their sleeves and devised ways to turn that mantra into action. Using tools, planning and role playing, they broke into groups and explored how to identify and map the power players in their communities, how to mobilize local unions and community organizations around shared values, and how to mobilize union members and the community to work together on key activities.
The training, said participants, inspired them to go home and look at their organizational structures and consider how to change them to put a greater priority on community engagement work.
"We believe education should be free," said Victor Sanchez, president of the United States Student Association, who helped lead an Occupy Sallie Mae demonstration in Washington, D.C., on March 26. "It's a right, not a privilege. Unfortunately, more and more, it's a privilege for the rich."
Leading the crowd in a chant of "No Cuts! No Fees! Education Should Be Free," he advised, "find your inner crazy to work on these issues."
The conference also took a poignant turn when higher ed leaders and many longtime friends and staff honored AFT Higher Education director Larry Gold, who is retiring in May. [Barbara McKenna/photos Simone Bonde Photography]
April 3, 2012