AFT Celebrates 1.5 Million-Member Milestone

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What's in a number? Nothing short of blood, sweat, tears and unsurpassed dedication when it comes to the AFT, which formally topped the 1.5 million member mark in a raucous, energizing celebration of AFT organizing that was showcased at the convention on July 9.

AFT president Randi Weingarten made the announcement to delegates at the Friday morning session (see press release), and news of the union's ability to increase its ranks and reach this historic milestone in such perilous times was enough to set the convention hall in motion. Bright lights bathed the room, revealing a "wall of fame" that sported noteworthy recent union victories. And music filled the hall—prompting delegates and union officers alike to dance and move in celebration. The tune was "Ain't no stopping us now," but "It don't come easy" would have been an equally fitting selection.

"There have been 69,000 members added in a period of unprecedented economic turmoil," Weingarten reported. "Even through these challenging times, we've enjoyed organizing victories across the country and in every division."

Moments before the announcement, union leaders from every division described how, when it comes to growing the union, top-to-bottom AFT coordination was making the difference—turning adversity into opportunity, transforming attacks and local crises into membership-building solutions in affiliate after affiliate:

  • Leaders from Detroit affiliates described how they had pulled together through a school budget crisis by using research, public outreach and membership mobilization that netted strong, reform-minded collective bargaining agreements along the way.

  • In San Francisco, the union rose to the challenge when 1,100 teachers and school employees were facing layoffs, reducing that number by a factor of 10 through a groundbreaking campaign that served as the prototype for many elements of the AFT's "Pink Hearts, Not Pink Slips" initiative at the national level.

  • In Oregon, AFT healthcare affiliates showcased their success in building a coalition of unions and improving labor-management partnerships with provider Kaiser Permanente, resulting in a "no concessions" contract that raises pay for all units.

  • In Chicago, newly minted union leadership at the Talent Development High School explained why this school had joined the growing ranks of charter schools organizing and winning a place in this "union of professionals."

  • Public employee leaders detailed how they were mobilizing against efforts to balance a New York state budget on the backs of state employees—a fight that has succeeded in preventing both layoffs and furloughs.

  • The union's victory in Central Falls, R.I.—a stand against wholesale layoffs disguised as school reform, a fight that pitted a relatively small local against the corridors of power—was described by leaders who received a standing ovation from convention hall delegates for the union's courageous stand.

  • In Florida, union leaders described how the grit and determination of members played a leading role in the successful fight against a state bill that would have tied teachers' salaries, evaluations, tenure and certification to student test scores—a multifaceted campaign that added 1,000 members in the process.

In each instance, union leaders stressed how coordination and timely, effective resources from all levels of the AFT had helped turn the tide in these local battles, many of which have gained national attention.

The convention theme, "Building Futures Together," was embodied in the Friday session. The organizing numbers show that prospects and opportunities remain bright for the union, keeping it firmly in place as one of the fastest growing AFL-CIO affiliates. In the past two years, the AFT has chartered 53 locals and won 85 organizing victories. Wins have extended across all divisions and include important new sectors such as charter school staff and early childhood educators. Many of our union's victories were highlighted in a video shown at the celebration.

"Organizing new members is hard work," Weingarten told delegates. "It's tough work—but it's work we care deeply about." [Mike Rose]

July 9, 2010