AFT goes to the wall for veterans

Share This

Few threads are woven deeper into the nation's fabric than military service, and the AFT is reflecting those ties within its own ranks as it expands the union's community outreach efforts.

Cleaning the Wall

This month, more than two dozen national headquarters staff, joined by family members and AFTers from nearby locals, volunteered for a cleanup of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Among them was Steven Greenburg, president of the Fairfax County (Va.) Federation of Teachers, who set his alarm for 4 a.m. on Saturday morning to help scrub the paths and black granite walls of the iconic monument and to participate in an observance honoring the men and women with names inscribed on it.

"It was a privilege to be there," says Greenburg, "and really great to see so many unions working with our community to honor some of those who sacrificed the most for the country." The local president says there is no doubt this is "union work" at its best. "Any time that we are working to solve problems to better the lives of our communities, we are advancing the idea of solution-driven unionism," the elementary teacher explains.

The Saturday morning event at the wall is a reflection of the AFT's stepped-up community outreach efforts, particularly those that harness members' long-standing ties to organizations and associations that are fixtures in neighborhoods. Recently, for example, the AFT extended its association with the AFL-CIO's Union Veterans Council—re-upping with the labor group and preserving an important vehicle for ex-military AFT members.

The UVC provides a place for them to speak out on veterans' issues and to influence public policy in ways that improve the quality of life for them and their families. Good jobs and high-quality healthcare for veterans are among the group's priority issues. Additionally, the UVC gives veterans a voice in the public arena—holding policymakers, elected officials and public candidates accountable when it comes to the needs of military veterans and their families, and encouraging union veterans to take leadership roles in other veterans groups to build coalitions and alliances with like-minded organizations.

The AFT is working to build membership in the UVC by identifying union members who are veterans and inviting them to join. This outreach was on display at the 2013 TEACH conference, where the exhibit hall featured a UVC sign-up table, and it will continue through next year's national AFT convention.

"Proud service in our nation's armed forces is one of the ties that bind thousands of AFT members and their families to the community," says AFT secretary-treasurer Lorretta Johnson, a member of the governing board of the Union Veterans Council. Honoring and strengthening those relationships in our members' lives, she says, is a reflection of the Framework for Community Engagement that the AFT adopted as national policy in 2010. "Participation in the Union Veterans Council is a great way to showcase both the spirit and substance of our Framework for Community Engagement."

Also involved in the work of the UVC are AFT vice presidents Eric Feaver, David Gray and Tim Stoelb—all AFT vice presidents who are military veterans and who see how the effort to better the quality of life for veterans fits into thousands of members' personal and public lives.

"There is a pretty massive transition from military to civilian life," notes Stoelb, president of the Oregon School Employees Association, who left the U.S. Navy as a Chief Petty Officer after more than two decades of service. He notes the transition "can be a rather drastic change, and we can relate and speak to it" as trade unionists with military backgrounds.

"Thousands of AFT members have served or are still serving in our armed forces," says Feaver of MEA-MFT, Montana's largest public employee union. "It's a good and necessary thing for the union movement to work with local, state and federal governmental agencies and policymakers to address our veterans' service-related needs as completely, competently and expeditiously as humanly possible."

And it's work that AFT affiliates at all levels can do. One of the best ways for leaders to get started is to identify members who have military backgrounds—and the AFT's online survey tool can be easily tailored to include questions that can help with that.

"It's very important to know who served, the contributions they made, and the contributions they continue to make to their neighborhoods," explains Gray, president of the Oklahoma City Federation of Classified Employees. [Mike Rose/AFT photo]

August 8, 2013