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Reclaiming the Promise of America

Remarks for AFT President Randi Weingarten
AFT 2014 Convention
Los Angeles, Calif.
July 11, 2014

 

I. INTRODUCTION

For everyone joining us here for the first time: welcome.

For everyone else: welcome home.

Home is where we seek comfort. Where we connect. Where we can debate and disagree, knowing that our bonds are stronger than any differences we may have.

While it seems like a lifetime has passed since our last convention, it's only been two years. Two years in which we saw the worst of humanity, the worst of our adversaries and the best of who we are.

When we last met, we didn't know that a court decision in California would reignite the perverse rallying cry of so-called reformers: that the only way for students to win is for educators to lose.  

And while many of us rejoiced when marriage equality was upheld by the Supreme Court, sadly that court has become Supreme Court Inc., ruling in favor of corporate interests while diminishing the rights of voters, women and working families.

When we met two years ago, we had not yet seen the horror in Newtown, Conn. We didn't know that gunfire would erupt on school grounds 74 times since then.

We have endured austerity that has cut public schools and services to the bone—like in Philadelphia, where this year, two students who died might have been saved if there were nurses at their schools.

We've seen threats to life. To our livelihoods. To our professions.

I've seen it. I've heard it. Since our last convention, I've been in 33 states and more than 100 cities and towns, and spent literally hundreds of days on the road—with you in schools and at other work sites, in meetings and town halls, in rallies and on picket lines, and, occasionally, in jail.

I've met with adjunct faculty who are experts in their fields yet earn poverty wages. Teachers and support staff who give their all, yet are beyond frustrated because their schools never get the resources their kids need. Public defenders buried under huge caseloads. Families buried under college debt. Chemists stretched so thin they're afraid they can't keep the drinking water safe. Nurses so overworked they worry about giving adequate care to their patients.

That's what we're taking on. But we're taking it on with more members than ever before. Today, brothers and sisters, despite the toughest environment unions have ever faced, I'm proud to announce that our ranks have grown since we last met. Today, we are larger than ever, a union of more than 1.6 million members.

Charter school teachers in Chicago and LA, New Orleans and the Twin Cities. Teachers and PSRPs in North Dakota and Texas. Higher education faculty and staff in Illinois, New Jersey and Oregon. The United Nations Staff Union. Nurses from Montana, Ohio, Oregon and Washington state in the National Federation of Nurses, whom we are so proud to have as members of the AFT.  

Why did they join? Because, while we are far from perfect, our union of professionals gives us the strength and solidarity to fight for what's right; to create a better life for those we have the honor to represent and for those we have the passion to serve. And because we're determined to reclaim the promise of America.

II. RECLAIMING THE PROMISE OF AMERICA

But let's be real, for many in America that promise has been more an aspiration than a realization. And the journey toward it was littered with some shameful things—slavery, prejudice, exclusion.

But what's been enduring and unifying is a vision of America based on a foundation of democracy and economic opportunity. You've heard it often: If you work hard, you'll have a decent life.

But it means more than that. The promise of America means you can send your children to a great neighborhood public school that is safe, collaborative and child-centered, not test-obsessed. You can give your kids the advantage of a college education without becoming disadvantaged in the process. It means when you get sick, you'll get good healthcare, and getting that care won't mean going broke. It means you'll be treated fairly at work, getting a real raise every once in a while. It means you won't have to choose between your job and taking care of a sick child or an aging parent. It means a lifetime of work will culminate in a retirement with dignity.

The promise of America means your voice—the voice of everyday people who work to make a better life for their families and their communities—won't be drowned out by the political purchasing power of the wealthy.

Today, that promise is more at risk than it's been in generations. It's been undermined by decreasing labor density, which has led directly to the greatest income inequality in nearly a century. Real wages have been stagnant or falling for most Americans since the late 1990s. Half of the jobs in America pay less than $27,000 a year.

The reality for many of our students, families and patients, and for many of our colleagues, is that life is a struggle, every day.

The promise of America is being undercut by people who devote their fortunes to decreasing our strength, to advancing the politics of division, and to promoting economic policies that redistribute more income to fewer people. And they've been aided and abetted by some lawmakers, judges, and even some Democrats. Some—like those who call themselves Democrats for Education Reform—mimic the Jeb Bushes and Eli Broads of the world, promoting competition and test-obsession.

But a new group of Democrats is emerging: the Democrats for Public Education, led by Democratic National Committee Vice Chair Donna Brazile, former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, who want to stand up for our students, for our educators and for public education. I'm glad to hear they will officially launch later this summer.

III. A FIVE-STEP PLAN OF ATTACK

Who are those that have so eroded the promise of America? They go by a lot of different names: The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC); the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation; the Koch brothers and the Walton family; the Center for Union Facts; Govs. Snyder, Walker, Corbett, Jindal and Brownback, who put their ideologies and deep-pocketed backers ahead of the interests of everyday working people.  

But they all stick to the same five-step attack:

First, starve public institutions. Students have lost 320,000 teachers, paraprofessionals, nurses, guidance counselors and librarians since the start of the recession. Music, art, science, sports, civics—all chopped. The New York state property tax cap alone led to the layoff of more than 30,000 teachers and staff. Our public health system has been chronically underfunded for decades, and support for public colleges is lower than it was 25 years ago.

Second, criticize public institutions relentlessly. Remember, the vast majority of Americans say we should ensure that every child has access to a good public school in his or her community, and Americans want strong public services. That's why our opponents create a failure narrative. How else can they diminish public confidence in public education?  

Third, demonize the workers and their union. You've seen that movie before.

Fourth, marginalize those who dare to fight back. Did you ever notice that they demonize and marginalize by refusing to engage with us as real people? And they pretend the union is separate from our members. Because it's easier to attack "the union" than a nurse, a social worker, a professor, a bus driver or a kindergarten teacher. In fact, one of the only times I've seen them attack an individual union member is on a billboard in Times Square. I'm all for the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, but I wouldn't have minded if they had touched that one up a bit.

And their fifth step? They don't stop at cutting. They try to seize power to suppress pluralism and to peddle private alternatives. Why? Well, there's a lot of money in it for the privatizers.

But more fundamentally, if they can execute these five steps, if they embed austerity, privatization, polarization, deprofessionalization, who will call them out on it? Who will mobilize the fight back in America when there's rampant poverty and inequality, when the middle class is hanging on by a thread and the ladder of opportunity is more and more out of reach.

That's what they want—to effectively silence us. To wipe us out.

I know we can't turn this around alone—but I also know that no one is better positioned than the members of our union and our allies to build the groundswell needed to reclaim the promise of America.

You made that our work two years ago when our convention enacted this mission:

"The American Federation of Teachers is a union of professionals that champions fairness; democracy; economic opportunity;

and high-quality public education, healthcare and public services

for our students, their families and our communities. We are committed to advancing these principles through community engagement, organizing, collective bargaining and political activism, and especially through the work our members do."

Now our job is to inspire, ignite and move millions to reclaim the promise of America—on Election Day and every day.

Here's how: connect with community; be solution-driven; engage, empower and elevate our members; and, frankly, be a little badass.

IV. SOLUTION-DRIVEN UNIONISM

Solution-driven unionism means being willing to solve problems, to innovate to make things better; it means finding common ground when possible, and engaging in conflict when necessary. Today, our union is not just solution-driven—we're in overdrive.

Remember last convention when we launched Share My Lesson? Now it's the fastest-growing education-tech venture in America. Likewise, with First Book, our union has provided nearly 2 million books to children who otherwise might not have a single book of their own.    

And we're fighting to fix, not close, neighborhood schools. We're creating community schools with wraparound services, including in McDowell County, W.Va., one of the poorest counties in America, where more than 125 partners are now working with us on this effort that is literally changing lives.

We've led the labor movement's investment in America to the tune of $10 billion, devoting a portion of our pension funds to infrastructure projects. We're on track to create more than 150,000 good jobs, which will strengthen our country while providing a safe return and a secure retirement for our retirees.

We did this. Not a venture capital firm or a for-profit ed-tech company. A union. This union. Our union.

We're solution-driven when it comes to collective bargaining. Of course, we use this vital right to fight for fair wages and decent benefits, but our locals are also using it to secure the tools you need to do your jobs and secure the things kids, families and communities need for a better life.

In New York City, the United Federation of Teachers' new contract puts students' needs and teachers' voices front and center. Schools have the flexibility to innovate, and educators have access to career ladders. And they secured raises that the former mayor tried his damnedest to withhold. Similarly in St. Paul, Minn., the union, parents and community partners are working together to give kids the great public schools they deserve. In Connecticut, state employees negotiated stronger healthcare programs that also saved the state money. And at Cooper University Hospital in New Jersey, the Health Professionals and Allied Employees negotiated safe staffing ratios—because we know that if there aren't enough nurses, then medical errors, infections and unnecessary patient deaths go up.

These contracts are not anomalies. They build on work we have done in so many places, including Baltimore; Cincinnati; Lowell, Mass.; New Haven, Conn.; and Plattsburgh, N.Y.—and in the ABC Unified School District not far from here. These collectively bargained agreements recognize that the collective wisdom of our members, equitable resources and collaboration are the path to improving schools, public services and healthcare.

And while we're talking about solutions, let's make sure we use all tools and tactics available—from the halls of our hospitals to the halls of Congress—to fight for affordable, high-quality healthcare and a healthcare system that puts patient care and worker safety above corporate profits.

V. ACCOUNTABILITY, TESTING AND THE COMMON CORE STANDARDS

You know what else is solution-driven? Fighting back against the testing obsession that, under the guise of accountability, is hijacking public schooling.

Accountability—holding everyone with responsibilities, responsible. That was Lyndon B. Johnson's vision in devising the Elementary and Secondary Education Act as part of the War on Poverty. But between No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, federal education accountability efforts have taken a very, very, very wrong turn.

It's no longer about how we meet kids' needs; instead, it's all about the test. Testing should be about information—giving students a sense of where they stand, and teachers and parents the information they need to tailor instruction and support our kids. But far too often, that's not the case. Too many officials are reducing children to test scores and teachers to algorithms.

So when an accomplished, beloved teacher like Houston's Daniel Santos gets a score out of a black box that says he's ineffective, something is very wrong. They call what comes out of that black box a "value-added measurement," or VAM. I call it a sham.

And that's why we sued. And why our Florida Education Association colleagues have sued, and why we're working on cases in New Mexico, and in Rochester and Syracuse, N.Y. It's why we've fought, from Rhode Island to California, to put the brakes on the stakes.

Accountability shouldn't come down to “test-and-punish,” and classroom teachers shouldn't be the only ones held to account. Instead of test-and-punish, accountability should be based on “support-and-improve.”

A support-and-improve accountability system makes students, not data, the priority. It focuses on meaningful student learning and ensures adequate resources. It's built on a foundation of professionalism and capacity to get the job done.

You know what it doesn't do? It doesn't make every child in every grade every year take a standardized test. It doesn't assess teachers on the standardized test scores of students they haven't even taught. You'll be considering that kind of accountability system at this convention.  

Another big discussion we're going to have is on the Common Core State Standards.

Some of you in this room think the standards should be jettisoned. Some support them because you've seen them help develop the deeper learning that is the antithesis of “drill-and-kill.” Some of you—myself included—think they hold great promise but that they've been implemented terribly.

That's why we called for a moratorium on high-stakes consequences for students and educators more than a year ago—a call even the Gates Foundation recently supported. But that moratorium doesn't solve everything.

Many of us think the standards need to be more flexible. Personally, I'm offended the standards were copyrighted. And virtually all of us think the conflation of the standards with testing and the profit motive has got to stop.

We will debate all this when we consider a resolution on the Common Core. That's the strength of our union's democracy. And there would be a lot more trust in officials these days if Education Secretary Arne Duncan and state superintendents like New York's John King listened to parents and teachers who tried to have these discussions, rather than dismissing their concerns. That's what led the New York State United Teachers to call for King's resignation and the National Education Association to call for Duncan's. We are the front lines for children, the first responders to poverty. We need a secretary of education who walks our walk, and who fights our fight for the tools and resources we need to help children. And we are deeply disappointed that this Department of Education has not lived up to that standard.

One last thing about these standards: Many members have told me they embrace standards as a critical ingredient in aligning instruction to what students need to know and be able to do, but that they believe the Common Core—or aspects of it—needs reform. AFT members were involved with the writing of the Common Core standards, but teacher voices have not been strongly enough represented in their development or their rollout.

So today, I'm announcing a new AFT Innovation Fund grant for members who want to lead on standards. The grants will be relatively open-ended: You tell us what you want to do, how you would do it, and what you'll do with the results. We will provide resources to the strongest applications. Stay tuned for more information on this later this summer.

VI. DUE PROCESS

While we may disagree on the Common Core, there is no disagreement on the sanctity of due process. All workers should have due process. And educators, healthcare workers and public workers need it. How else do we have the freedom to stand up for what's right, for our kids, our patients and our communities? How else do we exercise our professional judgment and prevent going back to patronage systems, where your job depended on who you knew, not what you knew?

That doesn't mean every due process law is perfect. While we must protect against false allegations, educators have a sacred trust with children—and that means we have no tolerance for sexual misconduct. And while we support our colleagues' efforts to hone their craft, no teacher I know wants to work alongside someone not cut out for this incredibly demanding profession.

But you can't fire your way to Finland. Teachers must be supported and nurtured, and not just thrown the keys and told "just do it." That's not fair to kids, or to teachers. So I would hope we could all agree that if someone can't teach, we should first help, and if that doesn't work, the person shouldn't teach. And it shouldn't take 10 years to litigate whether a teacher should be removed from the classroom. At the same time good teachers unfairly targeted for political or other reasons need to be back in their classrooms. For all these reasons, four years ago we started down the road to transform due process laws, working with the school superintendents' association, mediation expert Ken Feinberg and several states, ensuring this vital right is fair and fast and aligned with fair evaluation systems.

The Vergara decision ignores all of this. What's worse, it presupposes that for kids to win, teachers have to lose. Nothing could be further from the truth, and that's why we took issue with anyone who praised the verdict, including Secretary Duncan and Los Angeles Mayor Garcetti, even though we are glad he is welcoming us to his city.

If the plaintiff's lawyers truly wanted to provide all children a high-quality education, why didn't they promote ways to attract, retain and support good teachers at hard-to-staff schools? Why didn't they ask the state—or the wealthy backers of the lawsuit—to ensure that kids who are poor have the social, emotional, health, early childhood, after-school and other supports they need to thrive? The plaintiffs' lawyers did not spend one second on these issues. The bitter irony is that throwing out due process will make it harder to attract and keep great teachers. So yes, we will fight it—in the courtroom and the court of public opinion.

VII. AN ECONOMY THAT WORKS FOR ALL

And one more thing we agree on: While public education is essential, it can't do it all, particularly with more poverty, more segregation and an economy that is more unequal than ever.

So how do we create an economy that works for all? Growing the labor movement and reviving collective bargaining are key to creating a virtuous cycle of higher wages, higher job satisfaction and a path to the American dream.

Voting makes a big impact as well, because it paves the way for policies that make a difference.

Policies like increasing retirement security. Not simply fighting as we do against states trying to strip public employees of their pensions, but also supporting the 16 states considering legislation to provide pension plans to workers currently without access to them.

Policies our higher education colleagues are championing to ease the burden of student debt, like the bill we're working on with Sen. Elizabeth Warren and our student allies.

And rather than more funding for expanding prisons or school vouchers, why not fund a higher minimum wage, paid family leave, universal early childhood education, and full, equitable funding for all our schools, starting with our poorest communities?

And while we are at it, why not support polices aimed to increase investments in infrastructure and incentives to once again manufacture in America?

To anyone who says America can't afford this, I say: We can't afford not to.

Instead of accepting austerity or tax policies that favor the wealthy, why not demand that all Americans pay their fair share? Why not close the tax loophole for carried interest that lets partners in private equity funds pay lower tax rates than their secretaries? Why not enact a financial transaction tax, which would add a minimal cost on stock trades, options and swaps, as the AFT called for at our last convention? Even a small financial transaction tax could bring in $50 billion a year.

That, brothers and sisters, is the fight to reclaim the promise of America—the fight for our democracy, and for educational and economic opportunity, not just for ourselves, but for everyone.

VIII. COMMUNITY ENGAGED

When 1 out of 3 Americans was in a labor union, we didn't just speak for the community—we were community. But today, we must create new coalitions and, through them, the groundswell needed to reclaim the promise of America. In some ways, community must be our new density.

And just as we often feel shut out and disrespected, so too do families, civic and religious groups, and even small businesses, in places where schools are neglected or set up for failure.

We've taken the conversations about schools outside the school and into our communities. Because of that, we're in a different place than we were two years ago. In Philadelphia, working with the community to reclaim our public schools, we stopped school closures and kept public schools in public hands. In New Mexico, we moved a public education agenda with the Legislature over the objection of the governor, and in Missouri, we moved a working families agenda with the governor over the objection of the Legislature.

We're seeing whole communities come together to combat discriminatory discipline policies and chronic student absenteeism, and to make schools the center of the community. No more us vs. students, or us vs. community. It’s us with students and community.

Like when our faculty union at Eastern Michigan University invited community members in Washtenaw County to work on common priorities. Fast forward, and today WeROC (Washtenaw Regional Organizing Coalition), the name of their coalition, has passed a millage that extended much-needed bus service in the county and eliminated barriers to voting.

It looks like Moral Mondays, which the Rev. William Barber created and which we are now a part of. Then there was this past May—Mobilization May—when our members and community partners held 170 events across the country.

And it means a different relationship with the National Education Association. Last week, I was honored to be the first AFT president in anyone’s memory to be at an NEA convention, and the new NEA president, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, will be addressing our convention on Monday.

Doing all this works. In New York, the community engagement of the UFT and the Professional Staff Congress is so embedded that every Democratic candidate in the 2013 mayoral election put a commitment to public education—pre-K through 16—in their platforms. Labor and community organizers built on that, coming together both in New York City and then in Newark. And look who won: Mayor Bill de Blasio and Mayor Ras Baraka, mayors who actually put working families first.

And then there was the Chicago school strike, which will be legend, even if textbook publishers ignore labor history. No one will forget that sea of red, when the people of Chicago stood with their teachers union to force the mayor to stand down.

IX. MEMBER-MOBILIZED AND BADASS

But never forget, the anti-union forces want to split us from our communities, and indeed, from each other. We've seen it before: “Waiting for Superman.” “Won't Back Down.”  

While they're not quitting, they don't have what we have, and that's you—our leaders, our activists, our rank and file. A union's strength is in its members. Numbers matter, of course. But they represent only the potential of what the union is capable of.

I am thrilled that the AFT is growing. But unless our members are really engaged in our union, it's like vast veins of gold, untapped deep underground.

We all know that our members are overwhelmed. Many feel disempowered. But as anyone who has been involved in a successful campaign will tell you, it's catalytic when the disempowered become empowered—and empowerment starts with involvement.

Not everyone gets involved in the same way, or wants to get involved in the same way. By providing many different avenues to connect to the union, the union becomes a place where all our members feel that power—not just the incredible activists in this hall.

That's how the group that calls itself FYRE got started—Florida's Young Remarkable Educators, who are igniting a new wave of activism. It can be as casual as the Council of New Jersey State College Locals' "pay date"—a social gathering for members every other Friday. It can start by becoming an AFT eActivist, or helping the AFT's online rapid response team. It can happen through phone banking for a candidate we're supporting or packing backpacks for students displaced by Hurricane Sandy. Or rallying at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, or cheering our Special Olympics Olympians.

That's when the union becomes a family, not an insurance company. A union where we don't just say: The union is there when I need it. But a union where we say: We have each other's backs.

And to start that anew, here's a pledge we’ll be asking all of us to take at this convention, with and for each other.  

So, I've talked about reclaiming the promise of America by being solution-driven, connecting with community and engaging our members. There's one more thing. You've heard of the Badass Teachers, and you're seeing some of their "evaluate that" tweets. Well, we're all a little badass.

When Pearson Education imposed a gag order on educators in New York, stopping them from disclosing or even discussing any concerns about this April's standardized tests, we showed up—across the pond!—at the Pearson shareholder meeting. I suspect that made them uncomfortable, but what they couldn't ignore was the 18,000 emails Pearson executives received in a matter of hours. That's badass.

When we showed up with college students and their professors at Sallie Mae to expose its funding of groups like ALEC while standing by as families are bankrupted with student debt, it couldn't ignore us. Today, Sallie Mae is a former member of ALEC.

And the head honchos at Community Health Systems—the largest for-profit hospital company in the world—couldn't ignore our nurses when they called out the CEO in front of shareholders for rationing nursing care and putting patients at risk.

Likewise, we called out the hypocrisy of Wall Street hedge fund managers who angle to profit from public employee pension funds at the same time they support abolishing such benefits. Many did a mea culpa and are now working with us in ways to promote retirement security.

The willingness to find common ground and engage in conflict—without fear of either. Badass. Solution-driven. Member-mobilized. Community-engaged. It all comes together.

Don't let the recent Vergara or Harris court decisions get you down; we have started to change the conversation about public education. People are actually apologizing to us. They’re recognizing the vital role of teachers. Recognizing that public services are essential. Honoring healthcare workers for their compassionate care.

That's why we're not just fighting back. Because, in a regressive environment, fighting back—and even winning—just gets you to where you started. But when we fight forward—with the full strength of our union, united with community, prepared to call out problems and bring forth solutions, and willing to be a little bit badass—we not only fight forward, we move forward. And that brings me to politics.

X. POLITICAL CALL TO ACTION

Right now, our opponents are writing the laws, buying state legislatures to pass those laws, and—in some cases—electing the very judges who will be the ones to rule on our future.

Remember Nov. 3, 2010—the morning after the midterm elections. We woke up to Gov.-elect Walker. Gov.-elect Scott. Gov.-elect Snyder. Gov.-elect Corbett. And in many ways, life as we knew it radically changed.  

Public employees in Wisconsin—the first state that had public employee bargaining—do not have that right anymore, in any real way. A member told me last week that once Scott Walker gutted collective bargaining, she and her co-workers lost everything they had fought for to improve their lives. Which is why thousands have walked away from their union, and why this tactic has become a part of the right-wing playbook.

Elections matter. Public school students and their teachers in Florida have been subject to endless test-based evaluation schemes and a massive expansion of school vouchers. And in Michigan—the cradle of the labor movement—legislation to decimate unions sailed through the state Legislature and was signed into law. (Although let's give a shout out to AFT Michigan, whose hard work has led to a 90 percent recommit rate.)

And ask yourself: Why are barriers being erected to make it harder for some people to vote?

Elections matter. They determine who nominates Supreme Court justices. And right now, we are one justice away from having a fairer court, or from losing more and more rights that would ravage workers, unions, women, students and historically disenfranchised voters. Just last week, Justice Alito made it clear that he is searching for one more justice to gut collective bargaining in the public sector.

Elections matter. It's the difference between a Jerry Brown and a Scott Walker. An Elizabeth Warren and a Ted Cruz. A Bill de Blasio and a Rahm Emanuel.  

This year, we have a chance to undo some of the damage.

Think about this fact, though: In 2012, unions spent $600 million on political activities. Sounds like a lot of money. Well, business spent $9.5 billion! While we will never outspend our opponents, we can outwork them and out-organize them.

But we have to vote. And when you stand up, others follow. Because you are trusted messengers in your communities. We need you to be those messengers like never before.

And we are asking one more thing of you. As many of you have seen—in Central Falls, R.I.; at the Community College of San Francisco; in Alabama, Montana and Texas—much of what we collect in dues goes back to our affiliates. With what's coming at us, we won't be able to do what we need to do without adequate resources. That's why we are asking for a dues increase of 45 cents a month this year and 55 cents a month next year. This increase will be targeted to the Defense and Militancy Fund and the Solidarity Fund to ensure the resources are there for the legal and political battles ahead, for our locals and states in crisis, for the fight forward and the fight back, and for an Innovation Fund, as we said in February, that no longer accepts funds from the Gates Foundation.

XI. CONCLUSION—INHERITORS OF A PROUD TRADITION

You know, the next time we meet as a union, in 2016, the AFT will be 100 years old. It will be a time to celebrate, reflect and recommit to our union's aspirations.

And let there be no mistake about what we aspire to do: to reclaim the promise of America for our students, our families, our communities.

Unions have always been the ones fighting to keep that promise throughout the most important movements in our nation's history. But in the haze and hellfire of attacks on unions and union members, some have forgotten that.

Some have forgotten that the AFT was the only union to file an amicus brief in Brown v. Board of Education. And that in the 1950s, the AFT expelled our segregated locals.

Many have forgotten that it was the AFT, the United Auto Workers and the Steelworkers who provided the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. with financial support during civil rights protests. And that when King was shot in Memphis, he had been supporting the ASFCME sanitation workers strike there.  

They've forgotten that women's rights started with workers' rights. Seneca Falls, N.Y., after all, was a manufacturing town. And it was the women of a local glove factory who joined Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott there, at the country's first women's rights convention. Or that our union negotiated one of the first domestic partners’ benefits, on the heels of our members suing for them.

But we haven't forgotten.

Throughout history, we've raised our voices and fought for fair wages and decent conditions for every worker in America. And our voices became the tributaries that joined with others to form a mighty river that carved into the American landscape our country's most distinguishing feature: its middle class. 

For those of us who grew up reading about Eugene Debs and Mother Jones, John Lewis and Fannie Lou Hamer, the Haymarket Martyrs and the Molly Maguires, we see them as superheroes—the stuff of legend. But who were they, really? Ordinary folks who happened to be solution-driven, community-engaged, member-empowered and a little badass. And because of that, they claimed the promise of America. And because of that, we're going to reclaim the promise of America.

It starts here. It starts now. It starts with us.

Thank you.