AFT delegates take an active role in PSI World Congress

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AFT secretary-treasurer Lorretta Johnson led a delegation of AFT leaders representing government, healthcare and school support staff to the 29th World Congress of Public Services International (PSI) in Durban, South Africa, Nov. 27-30.

PSI was established 105 years ago as the global federation of public employee unions. It represents 20 million public service workers in 150 countries. The PSI World Congress is held every five years. At this year's gathering, delegates debated the impact of economic austerity measures; worker migration; healthcare standards; and tax, budget and trade policy. They also expressed support for public services, workers' rights and stronger community alliances across the globe.

During a plenary session on advancing public sector trade union rights, Johnson highlighted the important role the AFT and American unions played in the November elections across the United States: "By re-electing President Obama, the people said loud and clear that they want to rebuild an economy that works for everyone, and they want to ensure that every American has a voice. In the end, we saw a victory for people power over money power."

Candice Owley

Delegates to the congress elected Rosa Pavanelli to lead the global union federation for the next five years. Pavanelli, president of Italy's Federation of Public Employees, explained that "as public sector workers, we have special responsibilities and the best opportunity to build alliances with members of civil society to deliver quality public services for the benefit of all."

AFT vice president Candice Owley (pictured at right), who has served on the PSI executive board for the past five years and was re-elected for another term, expressed strong support for Pavanelli and a new direction for the global union. "These last few years, the workers in Wisconsin have been at the epicenter of attacks on public services and the workers who provide those services. It is clear that there are forces at work that are determined to destroy the trade union movement in the United States because we stand against the right-wing agenda," Owley said. "These experiences have led me to understand more clearly than ever the critical importance of a strong global voice for public employees with an activist agenda that will mobilize workers around the world in defense of public services and trade union rights," she noted. "For these reasons, I am proud that the American Federation of Teachers endorsed Rosa Pavanelli for general secretary."

Jill Cohenour, chair of the AFT Public Employees program and policy council, spoke out in favor of a new PSI program of action by calling for the establishment of "meaningful priorities, an effective strategy and improved communications" to deal with "the major problems that plague our unions and threaten our future."

During the congress, the AFT sponsored a meeting on the issues facing school support workers in unions around the world. Ruby Newbold, chair of the AFT PSRP program and policy council, opened the discussion by explaining that "education support workers have for too long slipped through the cracks and lacked concerted attention or support at the global level. This network can help us promote respect, recognition and voice for the nonteaching staff who are too often invisible within our education systems."

Meeting participants agreed to establish a network of unions representing education support workers that would support the exchange of information, assist in future organizing, and encourage global solidarity and support.

Another special meeting was held to discuss support for a medical clinic set up by the AFT in Haiti following the devastating earthquake that shook the island in 2010. During the meeting, PSI affiliates from Brazil, Canada and other countries expressed admiration and support for the work being done at the clinic, and pledged their help for the effort going forward.

Gary Feist

Gary Feist (pictured at left), president of the North Dakota Public Employees Association and an AFT delegate, spoke from the floor of the congress asking PSI to go on record in support of "sensible tax and revenue policies that are necessary to establish, strengthen and maintain communities." He explained that "too many people fail to make the connection between quality public services, adequate funding and fair tax policy. Only through education and understanding can we hope to establish policies that support public services and the valuable employees who provide these services."

Ann Twomey, president of the Health Professionals and Allied Employees in New Jersey and an AFT vice president, was a delegate. She urged the congress to support the struggles of private sector workers and highlighted the challenges facing the workers at Deutsche Telekom. "Ours is not a public sector labor movement and a private sector labor movement," she explained. "We are one labor movement, and we will all rise or fall together."

AFT delegates opposed resolutions passed by the congress dealing with the conflict in Israel and Palestine. Owley spoke out on the resolutions by explaining that "It is our purpose to find common ground and look for what unites us as PSI in the interest of peace." Noting that the resolutions failed even to support Israel's right to existence, she urged PSI to seek "engagement and consultation with affiliates in the region. We should be striving to look to what unites us as public employees."

Following the congress, Johnson stated that general secretary Pavanelli will have an active partner in the AFT in helping PSI improve the lives of public employee union members and the people they serve. "We look forward to working with her over the next five years to make sure PSI moves in a positive direction on behalf of public employees worldwide," Johnson said. [Steve Porter, Shannon Lederer]

December 6, 2012