President Randi Weingarten kicked off the AFT convention in Detroit on July 27 by advocating "solution-driven unionism," a new vision of unionism that advances solutions focused on uniting union members, the people they serve and the communities in which they live.
In her keynote, Weingarten said that America's workers face a new normal—with severe budget cuts jeopardizing public education, healthcare and other critical services; families losing more than 30 percent of their wealth during the economic crisis; and more than 100 bills introduced in state legislatures to demonize and attack public employees and undermine public services.
"This new reality—this new normal—demands an entirely new approach to unionism," said Weingarten. "An approach that is relevant and appropriate to the 21st century. More than ever, we need to act in innovative, creative and new ways—simultaneously refuting our critics, advancing our values, connecting with community and proposing solutions. That's solution-driven unionism.
Weingarten continued, "For me, solution-driven unionism took root when I saw our members in the ABC Unified School District in Southern California commit to a unionism that focuses on solving problems, not on winning arguments. It unites those we represent and those we serve, and in so doing, it ensures that we don't merely survive, but we succeed."
Across the country, the AFT is working with community, business and other partners on solutions that address economic and educational equality, including:
- Partnering with school districts in places such as New Haven to overhaul teacher development and evaluation and turn around low-performing schools;
- Launching Share My Lesson with the British corporation TES Connect, which will become the largest online community for teachers to share resources and best practices;
- Mitigating the impact that poverty and other out-of-school factors have on students in places like Cincinnati by offering wraparound services, including health and mental health services, tutoring, counseling and after-school programs;
- Forming a diverse partnership in McDowell County, W.Va., the eighth-poorest county in the United States, focused not just on improving schools, but also on creating jobs, expanding infrastructure and affordable housing, and improving transportation, recreation, housing, healthcare and social services;
- Working with First Book in Alabama, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota and elsewhere to ensure that children have access to an essential building block to literacy—their very own books;
- Uniting communities around ballot measures, such as in California, that raise revenue and stop cuts to schools by raising income taxes on the state's highest earners; and
- Investing the pensions funds of educators in projects to rebuild America's infrastructure and retrofit out-of-date buildings to make them more energy efficient and create jobs.
"I look at it this way: We're rebuilding the middle class on multiple fronts," said Weingarten. "Every day, in schools, universities, healthcare facilities and other work sites, AFT members are helping children and their families achieve a better future. And, while you're at work building futures, some of your pension dollars will be at work—putting other union members to work building the middle class of today, as they build the infrastructure of tomorrow."
Weingarten also unveiled a new fund to enable AFT members and leaders across the country to develop and implement solution-driven unionism in their own communities.
And despite the economic crisis, Weingarten announced that the AFT's 1.5 million membership number has held steady, with the union organizing 79 new units in 18 states since the last convention. The AFT organized new members in every constituency—college and university faculty and staff, graduate assistants, PSRPs, healthcare professionals, early childhood educators, state and local government workers, and teachers in public school systems and in charter schools.
Weingarten also drove home the stakes of the 2012 election. "I see this presidential election not as a referendum on President Obama but as a day of judgment for a way of life, for our values, for democracy, for opportunity, for fairness and for the future of our country," said Weingarten, contrasting Romney's proposals to fire teachers and raise class sizes with President Obama's efforts to make college more affordable and invest in public education and public services. [AFT press release/photos by Russ Curtis and Michael Campbell/video by Matthew Jones and Brett Sherman]
July 27, 2012