AFT Conference Highlights Need to Work with Community

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If there was a common thread running through the AFT's Civil, Human and Women's Rights Conference, held Oct. 28-30 in Detroit, it was the importance of working with the community to advance an agenda that supports children and public schools, and that values educators and other public employees.

Lorretta Johnson

Meeting under the theme of "Strengthening Communities Where We Work and Live," conference participants heard general session speakers, as well as workshop presenters, make the case that the AFT and its allies—both within and outside the labor movement—are stronger and better prepared to address the challenges facing public education and working people when they come together around a common vision.

Noting that the AFT has made community engagement a unionwide priority, AFT secretary-treasurer Lorretta Johnson told the conference's opening session that the union is "clearing a space at the table for all of our allies in the fight for justice and equality."

As president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin, Mahlon Mitchell has been deeply involved in the ongoing effort to reverse the anti-worker legislation signed into law in Wisconsin last year. He's seen firsthand the energy and determination generated when unions join with student and parent groups, faith leaders and others in the community. "It's time for us to get involved in the community and build coalitions that can never be broken," Mitchell told conference participants.

Delia Pompa from the National Council of La Raza stressed that closing the achievement gap will require "the engagement of all of the stakeholders." "There's a real opportunity for change if we begin to engage the community in what we need to do to improve schools," Pompa said.

The need for heightened cooperation among those who care about equal rights and equal opportunity was also on the mind of the Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit branch of the NAACP. "This is a very critical time for all of us," he said. "We have to fix our communities as well as our schools."

While community engagement was a central theme during the gathering in Detroit, conference attendees were given the opportunity to discuss a range of other topics as well, including immigration reform, school bullying, the generation gap and the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Kurston Cook, the AFL-CIO's young worker coordinator, said the goal of the federation and its Next Up initiative is to "mobilize, educate and empower young people" and to encourage them to participate in the development of AFL-CIO programs.

Members rally in Detroit

The labor movement's role "in building communities and standing up for workers and social justice resonates with young people," Cook said. Even young people who don't belong to a union "are starting to say 'union values are American values, and I stand with unions.' "

AFT members and others attending the conference displayed those union values on the conference's opening day with a "Justice in the Streets" rally to protest efforts by some Michigan legislators to pass a right-to-work law that would cuts jobs and lower wages.

Held in the shadow of the Labor Legacy Monument at the city's Hart Plaza, rally speakers included AFT Michigan president David Hecker, Detroit Federation of Teachers president Keith Johnson and Detroit Association of Educational Office Employees president Ruby Newbold. All three are AFT vice presidents.

"This is the richest country in the world, and some of the very same people who were the beneficiaries of the labor movement are now seeking to destroy it," the DFT's Johnson asserted.

"There are three institutions that have done the most to provide hope to the American people—public education, the civil rights movement and the labor movement," Hecker reminded the crowd.

Newbold applauded the solidarity of those who showed up for the rally, including members of the United Steelworkers of America, firefighters from Detroit and Pontiac, Mich., participants in Occupy Detroit, and representatives from several community organizations. "You are here today because you know an injury to one is an injury to all," she said. [Roger Glass/photos by Jim West]

November 1, 2011