The AFT's annual PSRP conference started out on a high-tech note, with AFT executive vice president Lorretta Johnson guiding about a third of the 875 members present in Las Vegas in setting up their cell phones to get text messages from the union's division for paraprofessionals and school-related personnel.
The March 25-27 gathering quickly turned from high-tech to the personal touch. At the opening session, PSRPs had an opportunity to meet fellow members like themselves—everyday heroes who have turned their minds, hearts and careers toward helping children succeed. High school safety officer Charles "C.J." Johnson of Texas, the PSRP Everyday Hero for 2011, has taken in 38 homeless teens over the years, and fellow AFT member Lester Lemasters of West Virginia made an extra stop on his school bus route every day to evade a fourth-grade rider's bully, which earned the bus driver a national title and plenty of gratitude.
"In my profession, you don't get noticed," Lemasters said. "It feels good to be recognized." Similarly, C.J. Johnson returned the sentiment after receiving a standing ovation. "I really appreciate a family that cares—AFT," he said. "I love y'all." Read more online about Johnson and Lemasters.
The two men were embraced by PSRPs, by family members who spoke about them, and by singer and actress Tichina Arnold, who played the mom on the television show "Everybody Hates Chris" and has performed in "Big Momma's House" and "Little Shop of Horrors." Arnold recalled that it was a school custodian who told her every day that she could make it as a singer. His encouragement helped launch her career.
"I'm very appreciative of you," Arnold said. "It was people like you who got me singing. … I never forgot it. You give your service every day, and that is so appreciated. I'm here to tell you that even when you feel alone, you are loved and appreciated."
The PSRPs gave a rousing tribute to their delegation from Wisconsin and delegates from other states locked in fierce battles to protect the public services that Americans rely on. Lorretta Johnson exhorted members to talk with everyone—their families, friends, neighbors and even their sorority sisters—about the value of labor unions. Some people think the crisis is only about teachers, she said, but reminded the crowd that PSRPs are never mentioned in public except when it comes to budget cuts. And the devaluation of the working class is not just happening in America, she added, noting that 400,000 union workers had just marched in London.
"The conservative politicians want to silence your voice, and the best way to do it is to silence your union voice," she said. "They want to take us back 100 years. Oh Lord, don't get me started. Like the root in that tree, we shall not be moved. Thank you, Wisconsin, for standing tall."
At a luncheon address on the second day of the conference, AFT president Randi Weingarten picked up on the news of the hour, describing Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker as "very special" and tapping him as the union movement's "Mobilizer in Chief." She thanked PSRPs for what they do every single day for children, and what they do "for all the other adults in this country who desperately need a union."
Weingarten explained how some ultra-rich conservatives are promoting tax cuts to corporations when many don't pay taxes at all. At the same time, they're trying to stop unions, which at this point are "the only check on absolute power and absolute wealth. The labor movement is the only institution that fights for working people," she said. "We will get strength out of this. Don't give up. Don't hunker down. And come up with proactive solutions." She pledged that the AFT's top officers "will do anything that's humanly possible to walk this walk with you."
Weingarten asked members to join in labor's "We Are One" Week of Action starting April 4, the anniversary of the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968 for standing up for unionized sanitation workers in Memphis.
Continuing the theme of social justice later that afternoon, AFT PSRP bestowed the Albert Shanker Pioneer Award on longtime local union president Robert Chacanaca (pictured at left) of the Santa Cruz (Calif.) Council of Classified Employees for his "commitment to social justice for all and his willingness to stand up and fight for those who cannot fight for themselves." In addition to his work for PSRPs as a skilled negotiator and advocate at the state and national levels, Chacanaca is active in the broader labor movement. "Wherever there is a wrong to be righted," says Dennis Smith of the California Federation of Teachers, "Robert is always there."
On the professional development side of things, PSRPs took part in dozens of workshops on topics from school district and college-level funding to educating students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Some participated in pre-conferences on communications or health and safety. Many also attended the AFT's first-ever Head Start conference. (See earlier story.)
On the playful side, PSRPs staged their famous Solidarity Night. "There are evil winds blowing in Solidarityville," intoned Kris Schwarzkopf of the Toledo federation before unveiling her secret weapon: a cell phone and her superpower as an AFT texter. "LorElvis" swooped in to save the day from budget-cutting fat cats, as did dancing angels from Alliance-AFT in Dallas and umbrella-twirling members from the Oregon School Employees Association who kept on "Singin' in the Rain." Sonny and Cher made a special appearance to sing "We've Got Union" ("When we walk the picket line/I've got you to hold the sign.")
Lorretta Johnson brought her own groove. After introducing the PSRP heroes, she turned to the crowd and said, "See, we do make a difference." And spontaneously, the crowd roared back, "Yes we do!" [Annette Licitra/photos by Michael Campbell]
March 29, 2011