Solutions to the economic crisis that is affecting AFT members both on the job and off dominated this year's joint conference of the AFT's Healthcare and Public Employees divisions, held June 11-14, in Washington, D.C. AFT president Randi Weingarten implored the more than 350 union activists in attendance to mobilize and organize to ensure that the AFT's collective voice is heard as policymakers at all levels of government respond to the crisis.
With healthcare reform being central to the nation's economic recovery, much of the conference focused on what shape the reform—which is currently being drafted in Congress—should take. Key disputes already surfacing in the debate are over a public plan option, which the AFT supports, and taxation of employer-provided healthcare benefits, which the AFT strongly opposes. More than 180 conference participants, representing 19 states, took the AFT message to Capitol Hill on June 11, where they met with more than 75 lawmakers and staff during a daylong lobbying event. (Watch video highlights from lobby day at the AFT's "Fight for America's Future: It's Dollars and Sense" site.)
"It is unfettered capitalism that created this, the biggest, toughest recession since the Great Depression, and it is unfettered capitalism that is fighting us tooth and nail on healthcare reform," said Weingarten, who urged the activists to use the crisis to move the union's agenda on such critical issues as healthcare reform, adequate funding for public services and organizing rights for all workers.
"We have a legitimate economic crisis where our foes will use it to try one more time to shift the ground from under us," Weingarten warned. She asked conference participants to talk about what they do—the services they provide every day to help strengthen our communities. She also encouraged members to take action by signing petitions and postcards, and lobbying. "This is a big issue, and we are not going to sit on the sidelines and let it happen to us. We need you. We can't achieve this goal alone."
A chorus of speakers, including U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), spoke of the need for healthcare reform and greater union density. Norton noted that "organized employees have always led our country in demanding for all Americans what they themselves have gotten at the bargaining table." Solis (shown at right) promised that "there's a new sheriff in town but the sheriff has a heart."
The joint conference, says Bruce Ludwig, chair of the AFT Public Employees program and policy council, and business manager of the Alaska Public Employees Association, "is a collaboration that makes sense for many different reasons.
"Whether we work in the private sector or work for a government agency, our pensions and healthcare coverage are under attack like never before," Ludwig says. "Together, we are leading the fight to protect salaries and working conditions for public employees and healthcare professionals. We are organizing and growing and strengthening our political action capacity where we have a presence. And we do this because we are concerned about our members and their families, and we are concerned about the essential services our members provide to communities all across the country."
Says Candice Owley, chair of the AFT Healthcare program and policy council and an AFT vice president, "This is an interesting time for all of us: one filled with great challenges and great hope. We are seeing tremendous threats to our benefits and wages. We are faced with layoffs and, in healthcare, staffing is being cut to the bone.
"But we do see a way forward. We have already seen [positive] changes to our labor laws and health and safety policies. And for the first time since the 1990s, there is a real possibility to make changes to our healthcare system." [photos by Michael Campbell]
June 17, 2009