07/10/2010

Convention Focuses on Communities Working Together

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As strong and cohesive as AFT locals are, they still need to work with other groups and individuals to achieve their goals. At a general session and video presentation on building community on July 9, AFT delegates saw inspiring examples of community coalition-building and outreach, from the South Bronx in New York to Haiti to Africa and back to Florida.

Community building: parents and schools together

One of the most natural coalition partners schools and teachers have is parents. Yet, for a long time in New York City, says United Federation of Teachers president and AFT vice president Michael Mulgrew, "relations between New York's parents and teachers were strained."

Enter CC9—the Community Collaborative To Improve District 9 Schools—which reached out to UFT in 2004 to be a partner in the Coalition for Educational Justice.

Real rewards have sprung from this parent-led collaboration: a $30 million grant fund to support low-performing middle schools, a commitment of $444 million for middle and high school science labs, and a "lead teacher" program to put master teachers in schools to support other teachers.

"When unions work with community groups," Mulgrew said, "parents, politicians and advocates listen because they know they have the community behind them."

Community outreach: healthcare workers in Haiti

The devastating January earthquake in Haiti brought an immediate response from AFT members most able and inclined to help: healthcare workers. Affiliates from New York and Vermont were among those that quickly answered the call.

With two visiting Haitian union leaders by her side, Jennifer Henry, president of the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, movingly described how her members rose to the challenge of getting into the ravaged area to set up clinics, care for the injured and arrange regular infusions of medical personnel.

"We have used our union to bring members together to face many challenges over the years, so it was natural to reach out to our members to see if there were people who were willing to serve on union-sponsored medical relief teams," said Henry. The response was overwhelming.

VFNHP sent 16 teams of nurses, doctors, emergency medical technicians, paramedics and others. Through donations from national labor affiliates, the AFL-CIO's Solidarity Fund has been able to make a $50,000 grant to support a clinic the VFNHP has set up in Port au Prince.

Community empowerment: supporting the Special Olympics

Indeed, the AFT's definition of "community" goes well beyond the walls of our workplaces, noted AFT secretary-treasurer Antonia Cortese. Case in point: AFT's support for the Special Olympics. At home and abroad, members have volunteered countless hours, but the rewards gained are more about the participants.

One of these participants is Angela Martin, an Olympian who has earned medals in swimming, skiing, track and field, and who served as a delegate to the Special Olympics Global Congress in Morocco last month. Martin, who has Down syndrome, has worked at an insurance company in Seattle for 18 years. "It is very important for people with intellectual disabilities to participate," she said. "The opportunity to compete and improve helps us study harder and learn the value of success."

Life, she told the crowd, is mainly about "freedom, acceptance and love." Quoting the late Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of Special Olympics International, Martin said Special Olympians are "spokespersons for freedom itself."

Community muscle flexing: forming an alliance with NFL players

The AFT has a new connection with the National Football League Players Association, said Cortese, one that relies on the ties that bind NFL players with the educators and coaches who steered them toward success.

The AFT and NFLPA face some of the same challenges, with both groups educating members about why they need a union and how to provide for retired members. NFL players have joined picket lines for hotel workers, and they are facing a possible lockout in 2011, which would be devastating not only for players but also for thousands of stadium workers.

Representing the NFLPA, Damon Huard understands the AFT-NFL link. A storied quarterback with the University of Washington and a 12-year NFL player with the Cincinnati Bengals, Kansas City Chiefs, Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots (where he won two Super Bowl championships), Huard has educators for parents. "I was always at school," he exclaimed.

Expressing his hope that Congress will pass a bill to prevent educator layoffs in the months ahead, he also endorsed more job security for school workers and called for solidarity between the AFT and the NFLPA. "Like many of you, we are facing a tough fight, and we are going to need your support," Huard said, describing health and safety issues, brutal working conditions and endangered retirement benefits. "We hope this helps you understand our battle." [Barbara McKenna, Annette Licitra]

July 10, 2010