The mounting challenges facing health professionals and public employees was the major focus of the joint conference of AFT Healthcare and AFT Public Employees held in Las Vegas, March 31-April 2. AFT members from across the country gathered there to discuss these challenges and share possible solutions. The conference produced three days of presentations that motivated, engaged and inspired. (See related story.)
Candice Owley, president of the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals and an AFT vice president, shared the lessons and meanings of the fight to save collective bargaining in her state at the conference's opening session. Owley reported that her members are energized and mobilized—just like thousands of public employees in the state: "We know who we are now."
This new self-knowledge provides an opportunity, AFT executive vice president Lorretta Johnson noted during the opening session. "We can turn this moment into a movement," Johnson told attendees, and now is the time to reconnect with communities. "Our neighbors want to support us, but they need to be educated."
Healthcare and Public Employee members take part in a community engagement workshop.
John Nichols, associate editor at the Capitol Times newspaper in Madison, Wis., concurred. "Unions forgot that people like us. Our fight is a fight for our communities, a struggle for a state and a nation that we can be proud of." Nichols, who spoke during a joint session on the activism of the public in Wisconsin, noted that the struggle in his state is "not about collective bargaining, union rights or even democracy. It is about whether we are going to be a civil society."
AFT Healthcare participants also heard from Diana Mason, co-director of the Center for Health, Media and Policy at Hunter College. Mason shared strategies for influencing healthcare reform. "Now is the time to share your ideas," she said. "We need your ideas and your expertise." There are opportunities for health professionals to get involved in the transition that healthcare reform will bring, Mason noted. "The more you are involved in improving care, the more likely that working conditions will improve. You have to be determined to be a part of the solution. "
During a plenary session, nurses from St. Francis Hospital in Wisconsin and Fletcher Allen Health Care in Vermont shared how they were able to put their ideas into action to improve units in their hospitals.
AFT Everyday Hero Joanne Dudsak, left, pictured with Barbara Rosen and Ann Twomey from Health Professionals and Allied Employees.
In conjunction with the conference theme "Making a Difference Every Day," AFT presented the winners of the AFT Everyday Hero award in each division: Joanne Dudsak, a registered nurse from New Jersey, and Jim Pomplun, a cartographer from Alaska.
Dudsak thanked her union, Health Professionals and Allied Employees and the AFT, after accepting her award. "The support of HPAE and the AFT has allowed me to grow and become the leader that I am. Today is a highlight for me."
In the closing session, Mark Richard, president of the United Faculty of Miami-Dade College, summed up a major theme of the conference. "We have people, power and resources; and we fight for justice." That is why the union is being singled out, he added. But it is up to members "to make sure that the labor movement does not fall."
"Will you allow the torch given to you to die out?" Richard asked the attendees, who responded with a resounding "No!" Then "business as usual is dead," he said "We must stand for those we serve, and we must make a promise to ourselves to never give up." [Adrienne Coles/photos by Michael Campbell]
April 7, 2011