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AFL-CIO President Cites AFT as Nation's Problem-Solver

When it comes to producing leaders, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka told AFT convention delegates on July 10, the AFT moves to the head of the class.

That's because our union doesn't complain about problems but uses our expertise to solve them. And that's why the AFT has grown to 1.5 million members and why Trumka expressed his gratitude for the AFT's leadership on behalf of union workers everywhere.

Case in point: The third-generation coal miner who went on to college and law school told how he'd seen AFT president Randi Weingarten "school our friends in the Obama administration" when they initially applauded teacher firings last spring in Central Falls, R.I.

That day, Vice President Joe Biden came to visit union leaders. "Now, usually at these meetings we try to be respectful," Trumka said, but on that day, Randi Weingarten was angry.

"The toughest thing to do as a leader is to tell your friends when they're wrong," he said. "Joe Biden is a friend to this union and a friend to the labor movement. But Randi stood up and told our nation's vice president that the administration was wrong."

Wrong to celebrate what happened, he added. Wrong to hold up mass firings as an answer to education's problems.

Weingarten was articulate, Trumka said, but also "a tad heated. The Secret Service guys started to look a little jumpy when Randi put her finger to the veep's chest to emphasize her point."

To a loud ovation, Trumka then asked: "You know what happened after that exchange? The conversation changed." Instead of seeing the firings as a bold action to be celebrated, officials started seeing them as a problem to be solved. The AFT, Trumka repeated, solves problems.

Now, working families across America are facing a triple whammy, he said: soaring unemployment, budget crises and crushing new demands on public services. With 15 million people out of work, even those lucky enough to have jobs live in fear of pink slips, medical emergencies and foreclosure.

And because Americans are so anxious and angry, they're hunting for scapegoats. But while some people want punching bags, Trumka said, the AFT looks for solutions. Until the nation gets back on its feet, he continued, lawmakers need to head off reductions in force and extend unemployment benefits and healthcare assistance.

"We need a jobs bill with a scale and scope as serious as the crises we face," the union leader said to applause and cheering. "We absolutely must provide emergency assistance. … We need 'Pink Hearts, Not Pink Slips,' as your pins say. I'm proud to wear one."

Finally, the nation must invest in "brilliant new technologies of the future," sparking a green economy of good jobs.

To those who raise concerns about the federal deficit, Trumka acknowledged the deficit as a legitimate concern but pointed out that it's also a long-term problem. Right now, we're millions of jobs in the hole; if we fail to invest in education and other public services, our nation may never dig out of deficits in skills, technology and competitiveness.

To bring this point home, Trumka called on AFT members to give elected officials "the report cards they deserve" in November. The AFT, he said, has always understood that the challenges of poverty find their way into classrooms, and that the best weapon against poverty is a strong labor movement. He called on members to renew support for the Employee Free Choice Act, federal legislation that would permit all workers who want a union to have one.

"We are all in this together," he said. "Americans do better when we stand together and answer the challenges of our times. If you want to build better lives for yourselves and a better chance for your children, then stand together." [Annette Licitra]

July 10, 2010