We are facing three crises in America—a health crisis, an economic crisis and an overdue reckoning with a history of racial and social injustice—all made worse because of Donald Trump.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic laying bare our society’s devastating inequities, division is rising in the United States—emboldened by President Trump. Nearly six years after the death of Eric Garner, how many more George Floyds will die at the hands of authorities after crying out, “I can’t breathe”? Rather than listening to the mostly peaceful protests in the wake of vigilantes and authorities senselessly killing African Americans who were jogging, sleeping or driving, the president doubled down on his divisive, hateful message. Shortly after Trump pledged to “dominate the streets” and threatened to “deploy the United States military,” he walked to a photo op at St. John’s Church—with officers in riot gear using tear gas and flash grenades to drive away peaceful protestors.
There is no precedent for this trio of crises, or for a U.S. president who stokes them. Throughout all of this, AFT members have devoted themselves to caring for, protecting, feeding and educating Americans during this pandemic. Our nurses, physicians, respiratory therapists and other healthcare members have been treating patients with COVID-19. Our public employees have been protecting our communities; our education support personnel, food service staff and bus drivers have been feeding whole families. And our educators, in schools, colleges and universities, have been engaging students and their families in this scary and unprecedented time. In a moment of despair, you give me hope.
These are moments that unions are built for: To confront crises and to fight for fairness and freedom. To challenge racism and erect the ladder of opportunity and justice. And with about three-quarters of members giving the AFT and their local union high marks, I know that we have the energy and unity we need to succeed. Our union is the vehicle for ensuring our voices are heard. As we face unprecedented challenges to our health, safety and economic security—and as we spur our nation toward a deeper commitment to racial justice—more and more people are seeing the true value of the union movement.
Since February, we have focused on trying to understand this pandemic, then fighting to protect our members and our communities by securing:
- the health, safety and well-being of our members—especially our 200,000 healthcare workers and other members on the frontlines—and the communities in which we live and work;
- the short- and long-term economic supports working people need;
- the new vision for our public schools and colleges, policing and justice systems, healthcare system and economy that defines what our society should look like post-pandemic; and
- the integrity of elections and the health and safety of voters.
To ensure our members’ safety as they fight the pandemic, we invested $3 million to purchase 500,000 N95 masks, 50,000 face shields and 1,000,000 surgical masks for frontline workers. To help our members burdened by student debt, the AFT offered student debt clinics, partnered with Summer to provide a free loan management platform and worked with our allies in Congress to give federal student loan borrowers relief during the economic crisis. To help students sum up their learning at the end of this tumultuous school year, the AFT brought together a cadre of preK–12 members in virtual teams to design Culminating Capstone Projects, which are available on the AFT’s sharemylesson.com. To connect with our members and build coalitions, we convened 12 telephone town halls related to the health, economic and justice crises we are facing. And to protect our members’ and communities’ well-being as we struggle to reopen safely, we launched a $2 million campaign to tell the U.S. Senate to fund, not forfeit, the future by passing the HEROES Act, which would provide $100 billion for K–12 and higher education, and $1 trillion to help our communities protect critical services, like public hospitals, public safety, transportation and sanitation.
We are doing everything we can to fight this pandemic, to address the economic crisis while increasing equity and to challenge racial injustice. This is the heart of our fight for a better life for our members and for everyone. To succeed, we must have a strong voice at work and in our democracy. It’s a big but necessary agenda.
As individuals, most of us don’t have the power to create the kind of change our country needs right now. But together—when we care, fight, show up and vote—we accomplish what is impossible to achieve alone. Our power comes from what we can negotiate through collective bargaining, what we can achieve when we join with our communities and who we can elect—from the school board to the statehouse to the White House. It’s these strategies that have sustained and strengthened us.
But just like the protest movements show—from the Women’s Marches the day after Trump’s inauguration to the March For Our Lives for preventing gun violence to the Black Lives Matter protests that grew to be the largest movement in the country’s history—none of us can make long-term transformative change alone. We need to elect a president, senators and others who will listen and act.
Through both activism and elections, we change the narrative, enact new policies and create a better life for all.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 election was about the soul of our country. Now it’s about everything—our soul, our safety, our health, our freedoms, our democracy, our economic well-being. The AFT’s endorsement process engaged more members than ever before. And when it was time to unify, we did for Joe Biden, whose lived experience is one that equips him for a job that requires empathy and effectiveness, as well as an allegiance to justice for all and to eradicating the inequities laid bare by the crises we now endure. And Biden understands this moment requires all of us, which is why he and Bernie Sanders joined to create a unity platform that I had the honor of helping draft. Sanders described it as “a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country.” He also stated, “I think the compromise that they came up with … will make Biden the most progressive president since FDR.”
That platform, which is premised on building back better, includes increasing community policing and investigations of police misconduct, desegregating schools and providing equitable funding while offering more wraparound services, making community colleges tuition free, reducing student debt and creating a high-quality public option for healthcare coverage. It’s time to give Joe Biden the chance to do that as president—with a teacher by the name of Jill Biden at his side.
And if we want the most progressive platform in history to become law, we need a Senate that stands by him. This November 3, we need to vote like our lives depend on it. Because, as we sit at the intersection of three once-in-a-generation crises, they do.
More needs to be done today, through November and beyond. Take school reopening, for example. Teachers want to get back to their classrooms with their students. We know the limits of remote instruction and the harm of prolonged isolation for students. We know that children best connect, learn and thrive when they’re in school in person, and that public schools feed 30 million kids a day, in normal times. But, as coronavirus cases surge, we are insisting that officials not reopen schools without appropriate conditions and safeguards in place—and with the resources to pay for them.
We have developed a science-based plan for safely reopening schools—including requiring the containment of the virus in a community, staggered schedules to ensure social distancing, stringent cleaning standards and personal protective equipment—and we are fighting for the necessary funding. We are fighting systemic racism and fighting for programs that create equity and opportunities, particularly for communities of color and for rural communities. We are demanding free, fair and safe elections, with vote-by-mail options for all.
Freedom and opportunity are enabled through several interdependent factors: good jobs with living wages and unions, adequate healthcare, retirement security, a voice in our democracy, justice for all, great public schools and a basic safety net that includes universal child care and paid leave. Increasing freedom and opportunity requires smart investments. Consider the possibilities of a Green New Deal that simultaneously addresses the harms of climate change and economic inequality. Through a new, sustainable-energy economy, we could reduce the health and environmental damage caused by the fossil fuel industry and create union jobs with good benefits and living wages.
The majority say the country is on the wrong track and they want sweeping change. To achieve change, we need to stand in solidarity, to be united, to be activists for justice. That means voting. But it also means staying active and engaged, like we have been every day since our last convention, so that our values are loud and clear. It means striking when our livelihoods are under threat and our communities’ needs are ignored. It means fighting tooth and nail for each other and for the people we serve—to give us and them the nation we deserve.
I am so honored to lead this union and am incredibly proud of the work our 1.7 million members do every day to enhance the lives of people all across the country. Thank you for the work you do, for living our shared values and for making what seems impossible, possible.
—Randi Weingarten, AFT President
Activism and Elections: How We Build a Better Life for All
The AFT is not just fighting back—we are fighting forward. Activism matters, but it’s not enough. Elections matter, but they’re not enough. Activism and elections around a set of values are essential to rewrite the narrative, change policy and improve lives.
We care, we fight, we show up and we vote. That is not just a soundbite. It is our creed. It’s how we organize and strategize. It’s how we relate to one another and to the communities we live in and the people we serve. It’s how we create trust and debunk misinformation. It’s why we’re not just a union where you pay dues and bargain a contract: We’re a voice for people who often don’t have any other. And it’s why, despite the anti-union U.S. Supreme Court ruling Janus v. AFSCME, we’re still 1.7 million members strong.
Together, slowly but surely, we have changed the narrative on unions: by telling our story and partnering with community on these bedrock values through politics, collective bargaining and collective action, including the teacher strikes of the past two years. Communities get that educators, nurses and public employees want what students, patients and families need.
Now we must draw our communities into winning in November. We are in a mobilizing moment; we need to make that a generational movement. We won’t make long term change unless we change policy; in a democracy that means electing people who are likeminded.
Here’s just one example. The Democrats took back the House in 2018; working with them, we stopped Betsy DeVos from cutting federal funds for public education. We got $1 billion for IDEA and Title I in the last budget, which was a great victory considering DeVos wanted to cut $9 billion.
Elections—including state and local elections—truly do have consequences.
Think of the impact of a second Trump term versus a Biden administration—especially one bolstered by majorities in the Senate and House. Think of the impact on the economy and inequality, hate and bigotry, workers’ rights and labor law, the Supreme Court, healthcare, climate, public education … on the survival of our democracy.
We have to be all in.
Mobilization: Our Power Multiplied by Our Community Partners
Over the past two years, we have mobilized for many important causes, such as achieving safe staffing levels in hospitals, fighting to Fund Our Future, tackling student debt, and advocating for fair and safe elections. Many of the causes we champion are described later in this report. Here, we highlight our activism on reckoning with America’s deepest crisis—anti-Black racism—and related injustices.
After the killing of George Floyd, Minneapolis Federation of Teachers members peacefully protested, donated food and water, and helped clean up. Joining with them, our members across the country have been speaking at events, marching in solidarity and holding community gatherings all in pursuit of justice for George Floyd and the countless others like him who have been needlessly killed by police brutality or by vigilantes. While prosecuting the individuals who commit these crimes is a step in the right direction, our fight for justice is also about transforming the systems that are traumatizing people of color throughout America. Black people have endured unending grief, fear, anger and trauma caused by racism and racial violence. This is a moment of reckoning that requires us—all of us—to act.
“I am the grandmother of four Black women and the great-grandmother of four Black girls. It is heartbreaking to have to question if their lives will ever truly matter and be valued in America. As civil rights activist Angela Davis said, ‘I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.’ I have dedicated my life’s work to changing things I cannot accept.” –Lorretta Johnson, AFT Secretary-Treasurer
To that end, the AFT joined the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and hundreds of other organizations in sending a letter to Congress in June demanding it create a federal standard for when police officers can use force, prohibit racial profiling and end a program that provides surplus military supplies to local law enforcement, including school police. Through a resolution passed by the AFT executive council in June, “Confronting Racism and in Support of Black Lives,” the AFT has also thrown its support behind separating school safety from policing, convening a union-wide conversation about school security, training school security as peace officers and increasing investments in the crucial counseling and mental health supports students need. Acting as quickly as possible on the resolution, the AFT is completing a survey of our members to understand their varied positions on police and other security options in schools, is discussing plans with the leaders of the NAACP and other constituency groups and is hosting a telephone town hall to engage members in sharing ideas on how to reduce police presence while maintaining safety and increasing services to the students and the community.
Unfortunately, racial bias in the United States is the legacy of the original sin of slavery. Bias is evident in underfunded schools, inadequate healthcare and racial health disparities, voter suppression, lack of housing, food deserts, unemployment and disproportionately low wages, as well as discriminatory policing and mass incarceration. The AFT is committed to rooting out bias throughout our society.
Our fight for justice is a longstanding feature of the AFT. Formed in 1916, AFT was one of the first educational organizations to accept African American members. In 1918, we called for equal pay for African American teachers; in 1951, we stopped chartering segregated locals. And in 1957, AFT expelled locals that refused to desegregate, losing over 7,000 members—but gaining the strength that grows from fighting for what is right. Now, AFT members are working to diversify the education workforce with “grow your own” teacher training programs and initiatives for people of color to enter and remain in education professions. From contract language that requires that schools be intentional about diversifying the workforce (Chicago Teachers Union), to scholarships for paraprofessionals attending education courses (Saint Paul Federation of Educators), programs for career and technical education students to teach their trade (United Federation of Teachers), a high school Teacher Education Academy (Newark Teachers Union and AFT Local 1904 at Montclair University) and a teacher certification test boot camp (Washington Teachers Union), the AFT has made great strides over the past two years to advance diversity in schools.
The AFT also partnered with the Council of Chief State School Officers and 29 other education advocates to chronicle the lived experiences of educators and students who feel far from welcome in school. CCSSO’s report, “A Vision and Guidance for a Diverse and Learner-Ready Teacher Workforce,” published in January 2019, is a call to action, and the unlikely partnership—union members with state superintendents and school administrators—amplifies the pressing need to improve school experiences for all students and educators, but especially for people of color.
“We have to champion diversity and inclusiveness in our school communities. It’s not just about teaching. It’s changing the mindset of everyone in your community.” –Evelyn DeJesus, AFT Executive Vice President
In October 2019, we held our annual AFT Civil, Human and Women’s Rights Conference in Montgomery, Ala. Surrounded by that city’s rich history of civil rights, AFT members, leaders and allies pledged to persist in the fight against racism, discrimination and exclusion, and for equity, justice and democracy. This built on resolutions passed by the AFT’s executive council in recent years, including a resolution on racial equity in 2016 committing our union at the local, state and national levels “to engage our members in open and courageous conversations on racism, inequity and privilege,” and a resolution in May 2019 in the wake of the Trump administration’s Muslim travel ban, opposing anti-Muslim bigotry, discrimination and violence.
At our last convention in July 2018, delegates passed a special order of business declaring the AFT’s “horror and outrage” at the treatment of undocumented immigrant children and calling for “total repeal of the Trump administration’s ‘zero tolerance’ immigration policies and indefinite family incarcerations.”
Because Trump’s hate-driven agenda has continued unabated, the AFT has also been focused on supporting undocumented immigrants and sharing materials on social justice education. In November 2019, the AFT joined with partners like the NAACP in a lawsuit to prevent Trump from ending Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which protects young immigrants—such as AFT members like Karen Reyes, a special education teacher who works with deaf students in Austin, Texas. “DACA made me visible,” says Reyes. “DACA validated my existence, my hard work and my contributions to my community. It allowed me the opportunity to pursue my dreams of becoming a classroom teacher.”
The AFT also continued to draw attention to the plight of the thousands of migrant children who were held in detention by the U.S. government. In February 2019, educators assembled in El Paso, Texas, for a “Teach-In for Freedom” organized by 2018 National Teacher of the Year Mandy Manning. AFT President Randi Weingarten led the group in a somber reflection of the lifelong impacts that these oppressive tactics have on immigrant children and their families. The AFT also donated books in Spanish for the event, which featured lessons and talks by educators and activists. In Mississippi, where ICE raids in August 2019 displaced hundreds of immigrants working in chicken processing plants, members of AFT Mississippi joined the United Food and Commercial Workers union, local Catholic churches and immigration nonprofits to offer legal help and assistance reuniting families, and to provide food and supplies.
In Puerto Rico, after earthquakes that started on the island in December 2019 did terrible damage, we showed up for our members in the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, even as the federal government failed to act. AFT members and partners raised $500,000 and donated necessities, including first-aid kits, tents and solar-powered lights that were delivered at four ports by members of the Seafarers International Union. The tents and sidewalls provided temporary classrooms for students and educators in some of the hardest-hit areas in the island’s south, where thousands of homes, schools and commercial buildings were destroyed or damaged.
Our members fight for racial justice in the classroom. Trump calls our culturally affirming, historically accurate approach an attempt to “defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children.” With partners like Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the AFT has distributed lesson plans, professional development content and other support to ensure every student has an inclusive education experience in a safe and supportive environment. We offered meaningful professional development around inclusion and bias awareness at both our 2018 and 2019 annual Congressional Black Caucus Foundation professional development series, and we sent some educators to Montgomery’s Legacy Museum, a rich professional education resource that meaningfully recounts Black oppression and draws a line from slavery to lynching to today’s over-incarceration of Black bodies.
Partners like these help us engage with broader communities and build power based on our shared values. They give us a stronger voice at the bargaining table—and we use our voice to fight for what all working people need.
Collective Bargaining: Our Values and Our Voice Set the Agenda
Collective bargaining is the core of unionism; it’s one of the ways we transform values and aspirations into actual terms and conditions for employment. Effectively bargaining starts with building power—and then wielding that power strategically and purposefully at the table to build a better life for all.
We build power by engaging members and communities around our shared values and aspirations. We build power by creating community inside and outside the union, through coalitions, campaigns and connections. Look at what the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers did: They built a community labor alliance to find funding for the public school system. They waged a fight against a tax-exempt soccer stadium being built in a historically African American neighborhood and ultimately got the stadium developers to plow millions of dollars back into the school system. Similar successes include the Chicago Teachers Union negotiating for community schools to make sure students and families get the support they need and the United Federation of Teachers establishing a new initiative to boost achievement in 50 schools in the Bronx.
Furthering our fight for racial, social and economic justice, members at Rutgers University won a pathway to pay equity for women and faculty of color, as well as $20 million for diversity hiring and lactation spaces for all faculty and staff. Faculty at the University of New Mexico demanded dignity and respect when they voted to unionize in October 2019. Their new unit, more than 1,600 full- and part-time faculty across five campuses, joins the AFT and the American Association of University Professors, and now has a seat at the table to influence university policy.
In healthcare bargaining, patient care is a cornerstone of successful contracts. Registered nurses at St. Charles Medical Center in Bend, Ore., approved a contract that creates a pathway to improve patient care and proactively address staffing issues, and includes wage and benefit improvements. Likewise, nurses at the University of Vermont Medical Center ratified a three-year contract in which they negotiated safe staffing and competitive wages at the hospital. The Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals negotiated better staffing language to make sure patients get the care they need, and nurses at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center won enforceable hospital-wide staffing ratios and limits on dangerous mandatory overtime. In Washington state, nurses secured anti-retaliation measures for reporting staffing shortages, and in Corvallis, Ore., nurses at Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center won a three-year contract after several months of standing their ground on extreme overtime and risks to patient safety.
“Our first job as a nurse is to advocate for patients,” says Kelly Hickman-Begley, a registered nurse at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center. “Healthcare is becoming much more of a business, and unions are key to looking out for our patients and helping nurses have a voice and build power.” Hickman-Begley became active in her union, the Registered Nurses Association (part of the Ohio Nurses Association), after seeing ineffective responses to poor nurse retention, inadequate nurse staffing and resulting concerns about patient care. In 2018, many of the RNA's 1,500 nurse members got actively involved in negotiations and worksite actions. Their efforts delivered a three-year collective bargaining agreement that addressed major concerns for the nurses, such as the overuse of the hospital's on-call system, and delivered wage increases averaging almost 6 percent.
Patient care and safe levels of staffing were also at the heart of months of contentious negotiations with Hackensack Meridian Health. Nurses represented by the Health Professionals and Allied Employees at Jersey Shore University Medical Center and Southern Ocean Medical Center in New Jersey defeated more than two dozen management proposals at each facility; the members won a commitment from the health system to hire more nurses, reduce the cost of health insurance, increase access to care and increase wages.
“Despite continued attacks on our right to union membership and representation, … our resiliency and persistence paid off. We refused to succumb to the ploys of management while fighting to provide better patient care.” —Kendra McCann, president of the Jersey Shore University Medical Center local
The nurses also negotiated a provision to take one week of leave to participate in medical missions. This stems from the AFT’s work to provide relief and support to our members in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands after devastating hurricanes in 2017. Dozens of nurses, health professionals and public employees volunteered their time to participate in relief efforts. The inclusion of the proposal is key for members interested in taking part in future missions and serves as an example of how locals are bargaining for the common good—essentially expanding the union focus beyond wages and benefits to address broader community issues.
Our opponents thought Janus would kneecap us. They thought members would trade in solidarity for a free ride. They were wrong. As detailed in the AFT Membership section (see below), our union has organized 59 new units with 11,461 workers in 21 states. Of these new units, 16 were in healthcare and 13 were in higher education, the two fastest-growing AFT constituencies. Our members recognize that the problems facing them are simply too big and the forces arrayed against them are too strong to go it alone. As the victories described here show, people increasingly see themselves in our bargaining demands and in our contracts. Our agreements reflect their values, concerns and aspirations for their patients, their students, those they serve and the future. So it’s no surprise that when we can’t get what we need at the bargaining table, our communities are with us when we are forced to walk out.
Noteworthy firsts in collective bargaining
Graduate employees at Georgetown University made history in November 2018 when they organized, founded and certified the Georgetown Alliance of Graduate Employees, circumventing the Trump-appointed National Labor Relations Board, and convincing their private university to recognize collective bargaining for its graduate workers. Their first contract—ratified in May 2020—is a model for better pay and benefits as well as “common good” measures like protection against sexual harassment on campus.
Graduate workers at Brown University in Providence, R.I., paved a similar path when they were recognized in a 2018 vote and signed a groundbreaking labor contract in June 2020, winning job security, hundreds of dollars in COVID-19-related healthcare relief and a stipend increase, in the middle of an unprecedented national crisis. The contract marks the first time an Ivy League school has agreed to a labor contract with graduate workers.
State employees in Colorado won a historic victory as the governor signed a first-ever collective bargaining bill. The new law, which is the fruit of years of effort by Colorado WINS (a joint affiliate of the AFT and the Service Employees International Union), gives state employees the freedom to come together in a union and bargain for wages, benefits and working conditions to improve public services. And Virginia also passed legislation allowing public-sector collective bargaining, though it has a delayed start date of May 2021.
Strikes: The Dawn of the New Era
After a decade of draconian cuts to education funding, teachers decided they had had enough—and their students needed so much more. It started in February 2018. Educators in West Virginia descended on the state capitol to protest a decade of Republicans’ continual disinvestment in public education. As rising costs of health insurance were eating away at educators’ take-home pay, and teaching positions were becoming harder to fill because of low salaries, educators were tired of empty promises. They locked arms, joined hands and chanted “55 United” in honor of the 55 counties that make up the state. They sang “Take Me Home, Country Roads” by John Denver, and together they accomplished what they could not alone.
Then in April of that year, educators in Arizona, Kentucky and Oklahoma were so inspired that they too descended on state capitols to demand funding for their students and schools. Fed up with the years of austerity, they too walked off the job. In these four “right-to-work” states, educators went on strike, marching through the streets with the overwhelming support of their communities to fight for salary increases and for basic needs like replacing aging textbooks and hiring more counselors. They also wanted to express their anger at schools being starved while wealthy corporations and individuals enjoyed tax cuts. With their activism, they secured billions of dollars in salary increases, pensions and other educational investments, and they won in the court of public opinion.
As these uprisings undoubtedly show, strikes are never a first resort but a last resort. They are a vehicle through which we work together to rebalance power so we can ensure that every single public school is a place where parents want to send their children, where educators want to teach and where kids want to learn. Educators vote to strike when they have had enough. Working in understaffed schools that leave them short on time for their students, they also see firsthand the pressing need for more counselors, social workers, school psychologists, school nurses and other personnel who take a holistic approach to educating and caring for students.
No one wants to walk out, but sometimes it is the way to achieve the teaching and learning conditions our students and we need. In January 2019, after two years of negotiations and six days of marching through the streets of Los Angeles (often in the rain), United Teachers of Los Angeles won a nurse for every school, a teacher librarian for every secondary school, caps on class size, a commitment to reduce testing by 50 percent, a clear pathway to capping charters, a much-deserved 6 percent pay raise, investment in community schools and more.
AFT President Randi Weingarten, who marched with the teachers, called the agreement “a paradigm shift for the city and nation, as it makes clear a commitment to the resources and conditions necessary for teachers to teach and kids to learn in L.A.’s public schools.” The strike ultimately proved to the district that the public stands behind public school teachers. Parents, students, clergy, the entire union community and Los Angeles educators came together in the country’s second-largest school system to pressure city leadership to put public schools first. People stood with students and teachers in several powerful ways: Parents staged an impromptu press conference to ensure their calls to support the teachers would be heard; teachers packed thousands of bags of food for their students so they wouldn’t go hungry during the strike; and tens of thousands of people from all over the country signed petitions, spoke out on social media and called the school district offices on behalf of this cause.
In Chicago, teachers spent 11 days on the picket lines in October 2019, ultimately winning significant changes for their students. Just as in Los Angeles, teachers in Chicago had the overwhelming support of parents, students and the community. CTU members were also joined on the picket lines by members of the Service Employees International Union, Local 73, who are special education classroom assistants, bus aides, security guards and custodians.
Chicago teachers won smaller class sizes and more school nurses, social workers, school psychologists, counselors and other critical frontline staff. They also won investments in teacher recruitment and training, tuition reimbursements for teachers who earn an endorsement to work in English learner and/or bilingual programs, much needed supports for special education teachers, as well as significant pay increases, such as a 16 percent increase over the life of the contract and a 40 percent increase in average PSRP pay during the contract term. In 1995, educators in Chicago were stripped of their right to bargain; they lost their voice to improve their students’ learning conditions and their own teaching conditions. As a result, Chicago’s students—particularly students of color and students with special needs—lost out on so many resources they needed to achieve. “This contract is the culmination of a generational struggle to make up those losses,” Weingarten said.
In West Virginia, unionists who went on strike in 2018 followed up with a walk-out a year later, when lawmakers attempted to break their commitment to improving public schools with an omnibus bill that would have funneled money into charter schools and vouchers. More than 30,000 teachers joined the walkout, converging on the state capitol to fight for public schools and to lobby against the bill, which West Virginia’s House of Delegates eventually killed. Weingarten joined AFT-West Virginia members on the picket line and thanked the state’s educators for being at the forefront of the national movement to fund public schools. She also cautioned lawmakers and privatization proponents nationwide: “Let West Virginia serve as a lesson to those who feign devotion to our students but do the opposite.”
And in Saint Paul, Minn., thousands of union members walked out in March 2020 to demonstrate for mental health supports for children, more multilingual staff to help students and families feel welcome at school, additional educators for children with special needs and an expansion of restorative practices. “I’m striking today because I love my students and am fighting for the schools they deserve,” said Megan Olivia Hall, a science and agriculture teacher and Minnesota’s 2013 Teacher of the Year. Educators also won $9.6 million in salary increases and pay raises based on education level and experience. It took nine months of negotiations and a three-day strike that ended just as the pandemic was spreading for Saint Paul educators to get students the supports they need.
As AFT members’ collective action clearly shows, we have come a long way from the days when charter schools were wrongly hailed as the panacea to fix every challenge in public education. The commitment of educators to their students and to bargaining for the common good in places such as Los Angeles, Chicago, West Virginia, and Saint Paul has forced school systems to reorder their priorities so that the neighborhood community school is the priority it always should have been. If these last two years have taught us anything it is this: When educators bargain big and make bold moves for their students, families and communities, they win big—for everyone.
Elections: Our Fight to Reimagine America
The 2020 election is crucial to the survival of our nation as we know it. Healthcare and the economy were already front and center on voters’ minds before the pandemic. Now we see how paid sick leave, accessible healthcare, living wages and workers’ rights affect us all. President Trump failed Americans on all those counts, and now he is compounding that failure by refusing to let scientists lead on COVID-19 and by stoking division instead of reckoning with racial injustice. We can’t endure another four years of this administration.
“Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 election was about the soul of our country. Now it’s about everything—our soul, our health, our education and economic well-being and our commitment to confronting racism.” —Randi Weingarten, AFT President
The AFT’s endorsement process engaged over 300,000 members—more members than ever before—leading up to Joe Biden being endorsed by the AFT executive council. Just before the endorsement, polls showed that a majority of members in each AFT constituency supported Biden, and he was leading his nearest competitor by a 2-to-1 ratio. He is the experienced and empathic leader our country needs right now. His character was forged working to make life better for others; it was tested by unspeakable loss and grief; and it was nurtured through public service and the belief in the dignity of every human.
Joe is with us on supporting and investing in public education; ensuring affordable, high-quality healthcare for all; making college a reality for everyone; and expanding economic opportunity. Facing the pandemic head on, Biden declared, “I am going to be a president who leads with science and who listens to experts.” He’s also going to be a president who truly cares about all of us and strives to eliminate systemic racism. As Biden declared, “It’s time for us to face the deep, open wound we have in this nation. We need justice for George Floyd.” To bring about justice, Biden pledged to create a police accountability board within his first 100 days as president.
Joe Biden will also address economic inequity, lifting up the working people who have made this nation so great. He will get the country back on track, heal our divisions and restore trust and decency. To learn about his plans for the pandemic, the economy and the people, and to do your part to elect a president who will safeguard our lives and livelihoods, go to aftvotes.org.
This November 3, our lives and our democracy are at stake. With the pandemic, economic crisis and systemic racism, not to mention assaults on public education, free press and healthcare, the very idea of America is being determined in this election.
Because we stand for working people and better lives for all, most of the country is with us. So one of our most important duties is to ensure free, fair and safe elections. We must hold Congress accountable by advocating for it to do everything in its power to defend America’s elections and make sure they are held in a timely, safe and transparent way—including vote by mail options for all. The $400 million for coronavirus-related electoral security measures that Congress authorized was a good start. But our fight for more comprehensive measures continues.
“Never in a million years did I dream that in 2020—55 years after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed—I would have to risk my life to vote.” —Nyia Sallee, a PSRP vice president of AFT-Wisconsin and an educational assistant at the Milwaukee Area Technical College
In May 2020, we hosted a telephone town hall on voting rights and safeguarding our democracy with U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson and Fair Fight Action Chair Stacey Abrams. Today, many of our communities are strategically and systematically disenfranchised through disinformation campaigns, purges of voter rolls, self-appointed militias who patrol polling places and many other tactics that threaten the right to vote. We have been fighting back by advocating for vote-by-mail legislation, sharing trustworthy information and helping people register to vote. And we’ve partnered with Michelle Obama, who is reaching out to young, first-time voters to get them registered and ready with her When We All Vote campaign.
It’s not the first time we’ve unpacked the threat to democracy: It is a running theme at many AFT conferences and events. At the “In Defense of Democracy” conference on September 17, 2019, which was co-organized by the Albert Shanker Institute, the American Federation of Teachers and Onward Together, Hillary Clinton and other activists and influencers targeted voting rights as an urgent priority. “The norms and institutions that provide the foundation of our democracy are under assault, and that includes the single most important fight of our times, the fight which makes it possible to wage every other fight and that must be the North Star that Frederick Douglass pointed toward—the fight to protect the right to vote,” said Clinton.
Across the country, the AFT championed so many people who rose up in the wake of Trump’s election to participate more fully in the election process. Nearly 300 AFT members ran for office in 2018, seeking offices ranging from school board member to county commissioner to state legislator and to U.S. Congress member. “I am done begging for attention from our elected officials,” said Johanna López, an educator who ran for the Orange County, Fla., school board in 2018. “I am running to take their seats, and you should too. Teachers need to run for office, to mobilize their communities, to volunteer, to help elect other teachers and to defend the dignity of our profession.” López won her seat on a campaign run entirely by current and former Orange County Public Schools students.
“We have to be prepared to do the hard work and not be afraid to say out loud what our values are. Run for political office. Run until there is an AFT member in every single level of government from the city, to the state, to the White House.” –Brandon Johnson, AFT member elected to be a Cook County (Ill.) Commissioner in 2018
There were other victories to celebrate during the 2018 midterm elections. AFT members won state and local elections across the country, in Connecticut, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Utah, Wisconsin and more. AFT member Gretchen Whitmer became governor of Michigan and former member Tim Walz is now governor of Minnesota. Americans sent two important messages at the 2018 polls, AFT President Randi Weingarten said just after the elections. “First, on a federal level, they voted for a check and balance on President Trump and were inspired by the women on the ballot.… Second, on a state level, people voted for problem solvers as governors and in their statehouses—governors committed to finding solutions that make life better for children and families, and who believe in public education, good healthcare, and rebuilding roads and bridges and water systems.”
One of those governors is Michelle Lujan Grisham, who AFT New Mexico helped elect. AFT New Mexico devoted years to testifying before elected officials and policymakers, writing letters, rallying and urging legislators to take care of New Mexico’s students and working families. Finally, with Gov. Lujan Grisham’s strong support, AFT New Mexico members celebrated a $216 million increase in the state’s public school spending in March 2020.
Now, we must continue to build momentum through November.
We Care. We Fight. We Show Up. We Vote: How It All Comes Together
Activism and elections, shared values and strong voices. Our work is multifaceted and unified. Here are a few examples of how it all comes together.
Campaigning to Fund Our Future
Years of disinvestment have hurt our students, leading to overcrowded classrooms; schools without nurses, librarians or guidance counselors; deteriorating school buildings with outdated technology; and unhealthy, unsafe environments. Disinvestment in higher education has led to huge increases in tuition and student debt as well as fewer course offerings and an over-reliance on exploited adjunct faculty.
At our 2018 convention in downtown Pittsburgh, nearly a thousand convention delegates joined AFT President Randi Weingarten, Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers members, parents, students and community allies in the March for Equitable Funding of Public Schools. Ensuring that our schools have adequate and equitable funding and resources, Weingarten said “is about showing that we walk the walk for our kids. They are our future, and they will be our salvation.”
Since then, the AFT has continued “to walk the walk.” AFT affiliates nationwide launched the Fund Our Future campaign in March 2019; educators and our allies across the nation took action to demand adequate and sustainable investment in our public schools, colleges and universities, so students—particularly the young people from chronically under-resourced communities—have the resources they need to succeed.
In December 2019, we celebrated the passage of a historic school funding bill in Massachusetts—the result of three years of campaigning in which tens of thousands of AFT Massachusetts members and other advocates contacted legislators and attended rallies and forums around the state. The bill secured a historic $1.5 billion a year investment in public schools. Its passage was the direct result of the mobilization and engagement of members and communities in the Fund Our Future campaign—with a Republican governor, no less. And now they are fighting for that same kind of massive investment in higher education.
The fight for funding continued in Florida, which ranks 47th in the nation for teacher pay and 43rd in per-student expenditures; schools are falling apart and equipment is outdated. After a five-week Fund Our Future bus tour in the fall of 2019 that included nearly half of the state’s counties, on January 13, 2020, 15,000 educators and allies descended on the state capitol the day before the Florida legislature began its 2020 session, demanding more funds for public schools and amplifying the needs of their students. The event was followed two weeks later by the Florida Coalition for Children’s 2020 Rally in Tally where foster youth, families and child welfare workers met one-on-one with their legislators to share their stories and experiences. These events reflect the swelling tide of activism based on the shared values of teachers, support personnel, parents, students and community members across the country.
That tide kept rolling in when the New York State United Teachers kicked off a seven-week Fund Our Future bus tour in January 2020 to draw attention to the impact of funding shortages in public schools from Long Island to the North Country. The statewide action highlighted teacher and support staff layoffs, shortages of everything from counselors to supplies, ballooning class sizes and leaking roofs. Such efforts to raise awareness are building community and moving the needle on funding at the state level.
In neighboring Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers launched a Fund Our Facilities campaign with a coalition of union and civic leaders and elected officials, proposing a $170 million investment to make critical repairs to the city’s more than 200 public school buildings. This cash infusion would triage dangerous health and safety conditions in schools, such as repair of water leaks, remediation of asthma triggers and acceleration of lead paint stabilization. “It’s not enough to simply call attention to the inhumane school building conditions,” said PFT President Jerry Jordan. “We also must have a comprehensive plan to immediately address the environmental hazards plaguing our schools.”
“The children and staff of Philadelphia schools are being poisoned by asbestos in our schools…. It’s an egregious breach of human rights that could quite literally cost them their lives. I hope that we can reckon with this abject and astounding societal failure to invest in public education.” —Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers
But just as the activism of AFT members and our community allies was beginning to bring about new investments in public education and services, the pandemic struck and we are once again facing an economic crisis. Now more than ever, we need to focus on sustaining that commitment to Fund our Future.
Knocking down student debt
Collectively, student debt is over $1.6 trillion. About 1 in 4 federal student loan borrowers were in distress prior to the pandemic—now signs of trouble are everywhere. When borrowers fall behind on their payments, the consequences are dire: missing mortgage and rent payments, skipping crucial healthcare and falling into chronic depression. Some borrowers delay starting families or purchasing homes, avoid starting businesses and settle for unfulfilling jobs just so they can make that monthly loan payment. Not to mention negative credit reports, wage garnishment and diminished options to cure defaulted loans. Consumer credit reports—which are the keys to employment, housing and access to credit, and consequently to economic stability itself—are tarnished.
To help our members, the AFT offers student debt clinics, providing information on how to enroll in income-driven repayment plans and Public Service Loan Forgiveness, saving borrowers money in both the short- and long-term. We’ve also partnered with Summer, providing our members with a free, online student loan management platform that by July 2020 had already collectively saved AFT members nearly $251 million over the lives of their loans. (Learn more at aft.org/benefits/summer.) We also worked with our allies in Congress to give federal student loan borrowers relief during the economic crisis and to address the underlying issue of college costs.
“I do not understand why Secretary DeVos would not do everything in her power to help teachers like me—who did everything right—receive the loan forgiveness we were promised. I urge her to take action, which is within her authority, to fix this broken system.” —Kelly Finlaw, middle school teacher in New York City and United Federation of Teachers member
But we know that helping each other manage student debt is not enough; we are also exploring strategies to free America from student debt by holding key players accountable, including predatory loan servicers who mislead borrowers into ballooning debt, rather than diminishing it. We even sued loan-servicing company Navient Solutions LLC in October 2018, one of the worst offenders, and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in July 2019, who has been shameless in her support of such servicers.
In June 2020, we achieved preliminary approval for a settlement in our suit against Navient; the loan giant agreed to enhance its internal practices and policies and to report on its compliance. Practice enhancements include training customer service agents to take additional steps to identify borrowers potentially eligible for relief under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program and to provide them with information about the program and how to qualify. Navient also agreed to pay $1.75 million to support student loan counseling and education to borrowers who work in public service.
Joining forces for students, in person and online
Those who are anti-public schools, like Betsy DeVos, see the pandemic as an opportunity to entrench remote learning, ignore students’ needs and direct money to private schools. Our members set a much better example, caring for public school and higher education students at every turn. For example, the Toledo (Ohio) Federation of Teachers has been packing grab-and-go meals for students to last several days at a time. And in Lee County in Florida, school food service workers have been preparing and distributing up to 25,000 free grab-and-go meals every day, available to any child 18 or younger. In the nation’s capital, where up to 40 percent of students lack a computer or internet access, the Washington Teachers’ Union partnered with local TV stations to air lessons aligned with district learning standards.
Urban school struggles often get more attention, but the AFT is acutely aware that rural communities face their own unique challenges. Over the last two years in places such as St. Lawrence County, New York and Lordstown, Ohio, the AFT joined with local businesses, school districts and community groups to support students and families. And our union has continued its support of Reconnecting McDowell. Established in McDowell County, W.Va., in 2012, this initiative focuses on bringing together unions, government, business, nonprofit organizations and the community around economic and educational renewal. Our efforts in McDowell made great advances in September 2019, with groundbreaking on an apartment building called Renaissance Village for educators in Welch, W.Va., where a housing shortage made it difficult to attract the teachers these schools need.
To help students sum up their learning this school year, the AFT brought together a cadre of preK–12 members in virtual teams to design Culminating Capstone Projects. These projects, organized by grade band, integrate standards-based content across subjects and are developmentally appropriate. Now available on the AFT’s sharemylesson.com, these projects engage students in honing the skills and knowledge they’ve acquired over the first seven months of classroom learning in innovative, meaningful ways. And they could also be deployed during a voluntary summer learning program or as a reentry project as schools open.
Seeing that the Trump administration was not going to provide science-based guidance for reopening, we developed our own guide—and it is being used across the country. Our “Plan to Safely Reopen America’s Schools and Communities” (available at aft.org/reopen-schools) sprung from an intense collaboration of public health professionals, U.S. and international union leaders and frontline workers—especially teachers and nurses.
Further responding to AFT members’ questions and needs, we also created a companion “Guide to Bringing Parents, Patients, Students and Community Together to Reopen America’s Schools Safely and Equitably.” Available in both English and Spanish, the guide includes concrete steps for how local unions and community members can partner to ensure all students receive the education they deserve. A helpful fact sheet on the need for federal and state investment to revive our economy and restore our communities is also included. The numbers within it tell a sobering story. Even with the $2 trillion CARES Act rescue package passed in March, the unemployment rate reached a high of 14.7 percent in April—the highest since the 1930s. In the coming fiscal year, states face shortfalls of between $360 billion and $500 billion, on top of new costs for combating COVID-19. That’s why the AFT is urging elected leaders to not abandon America’s communities or forfeit our country’s future. And it’s why we created a $2 million campaign pressing the Senate to pass the HEROES Act. Reopening and recovery will take more—not less—investment in public health, schools, colleges and universities, hospitals and local and state governments.
Going all in to save lives
While the Trump administration ignored, denied and downplayed the deadly reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, the AFT’s healthcare leaders and members sounded the alarm back in January. Since then, the AFT has been working nonstop to protect the health and safety of our members who are on the frontlines and to develop resources and guidance for all members. Visit aft.org/coronavirus for the latest updates on everything from infection prevention to mental health supports to materials for remote learning.
“Trump has continually downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic through false and misleading pronouncements…. His administration dismantled the pandemic unit in the National Security Council in 2018.” —Kent Wong, a vice president of the California Federation of Teachers
Many healthcare professionals have been redeploying to where they are needed most. After Connecticut closed its schools in March to slow the spread of COVID-19, school nurses like Toni Pederson would have been out of work for months. Instead, Pederson and others represented by the Visiting Nurse Association of Southeastern CT Union Local 5119/AFT Connecticut got trained up and hired on at COVID-19 test sites. “It is a great example of solution-driven unionism and shows how collective bargaining empowers members,” says Ann Ryan, the local union president.
Healthcare personnel have been risking their lives every day not just because of the virus, but because of the Trump administration’s failure to plan and to use its power to increase supplies to address it. While the Trump administration ignored this crisis—even baselessly insinuated that healthcare workers were stealing—the AFT rallied. In the spring, the AFT invested $3 million to purchase 500,000 N95 masks, 50,000 face shields, and 1,000,000 surgical masks for frontline workers.
The pandemic has laid bare every inequity of our country, from the disastrous consequences of cuts to the nation’s public health infrastructure and the lack of paid sick leave for all workers, to the prevalence of systemically induced pre-existing health conditions and food insecurity among communities of color, to the gaping digital divide and the unconscionable number of Americans who are uninsured or underinsured. That is why we have been fighting for the president and Congress to do their jobs and secure the federal funds needed to keep workers healthy, protected and employed and to keep local and state governments, the Postal Service, and colleges and public schools functioning.
Trump and his Republican allies in the Senate have excelled at throwing up excuses. For years, their lavish tax cuts for the wealthy exploded the deficit, yet suddenly they were “concerned” about deficits as the country faced unprecedented health and economic crises. To move forward, we launched a campaign calling on officials to not forfeit our future; we pressed the Senate to support the HEROES Act, including $100 billion for K–12 and higher education, and $1 trillion to help our communities protect critical services, like public hospitals, public safety, transportation and sanitation.
This is a life-or-death moment for our activism and elections strategy. We have been active, but to truly put the nation on a different course, we must win the White House and the Senate—and as many House, state and local elections as possible. Many years of government action focused on the needs of working people are needed to repair the harm to people’s health, the economy and our democracy. Economic stimulus measures must be designed to create a recovery shared by all Americans, especially the most vulnerable.
With our members, our communities and our partners, we’re all in.
In the two years since our last convention, the AFT’s commitment to member engagement and organizing has successfully blunted the impact of the Supreme Court’s Janus v. AFSCME decision. The numbers tell a story of resolve and resilience: 1,710,315 professionals are proudly represented by the AFT. Although our roles are diverse, we are united by our dedication to enhancing individuals’ and communities’ well-being.
We’re educators working in preK–12 classrooms, and we’re nurses (including school nurses), physicians, technicians and other healthcare professionals. We are college faculty, adjunct instructors, graduate employees and administrative professionals. We are school maintenance workers and food service personnel, school bus drivers and mechanics. We are public employees in state, county and municipal governments, from social workers and psychologists to public safety officers and court administrators, from marine biologists to bridge inspectors. We live and work all across the country, as well as in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam. We are working and retired. We are all AFT.
At our 2018 convention, AFT delegates passed resolutions to fight anti-union forces, like U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and the Koch family, by organizing and building union power. Acting on those resolutions, our union has organized 59 new units with 11,461 workers in 21 states. And there were organizing victories in all sectors. Of these new units, 16 were in healthcare and 13 were in higher education, the two fastest-growing AFT constituencies. The AFT also saw growth in its organizing of retirees.
Both our membership engagement and new organizing efforts combined have recaptured much of the loss of agency-fee payers from Janus. The AFT has seen a net growth of more than 44,000 in membership and representation since the decision.
Big organizing gains. The AFT has achieved significant victories over the past two years. These included historic first contracts for graduate students. At Georgetown University, 1,100 teaching assistants and research assistants voted to unionize and affiliate with the AFT in November 2018. The Georgetown Alliance of Graduate Employees (GAGE) settled its first contract in May 2020 with improvements to healthcare and COVID-19 related health coverage, wage increases and sexual harassment procedures not subject to Title IX rules. At Brown University—a first-time organizing victory in the Ivy League—1,200 teaching assistants and research assistants voted to unionize and affiliate with the AFT in November 2018. The Stand Up for Graduate Student Employees union settled its first contract in June 2020.
AFT Healthcare has become the fastest growing healthcare union over the last six years. It has continued to experience significant growth since 2018, especially in the western part of the country, as healthcare workers fight for a voice in the workplace and for better patient care. In Portland, Ore., we added 153 registered nurses at Unity Hospital, which is part of the Legacy chain. The nurses at this mental health hospital voted to join the Oregon Nurses Association in June 2019 and are currently in their first contract negotiations. In May 2019, the 92 behavior specialists at the Western Montana Mental Health Center in Missoula joined the Montana Federation of Public Employees (MFPE). Then in October 2019, four behavior health specialists in Thompson Falls voted to join MFPE as well. Our wins also extended to the northeastern part of the country. In May 2019, the 89 professionals at Community Health Centers of Burlington joined AFT Vermont. And in July 2019, the 97 healthcare techs at Prospect Rockville Hospital in Vernon voted to join AFT Connecticut. We also brought in seven additional units in Oregon and Washington state.
AFT Higher Education has also made strides in organizing since the last convention. In addition to the big graduate student wins at Georgetown and Brown, 700 adjuncts at Columbia College in Chicago affiliated with the Illinois Federation of Teachers in August 2019 after being an independent union. In October 2019, 1,800 full- and part-time faculty at the University of New Mexico overwhelmingly voted to join the AFT, after the university spent months fighting them on holding an election. United Academics of the University of New Mexico is currently negotiating its first contract. And in a rich bit of history, on June 27, 2018—the day Janus was decided—2,400 full- and part-time faculty at Oregon State University negotiated their first contract, which included wage increases, expansion of academic freedom, bridge funding for those working on grants and a doubling of allotted leave.
Educators in charter schools are continuing to raise their voices and be heard. Many are successfully making the case that teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions and must be fully funded, valued and supported. We have organized seven new charter schools in California, Illinois, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. The AFT now represents members working in 259 charter schools throughout the United States.