AFT health professionals focus on community connections

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Photo: Michael CampbellPhoto: Michael Campbell

The importance of building coalitions to strengthen our communities—and fight back against attacks on workers and the middle class—was a major topic of discussion during this year's AFT Healthcare Professional Issues Conference. Several hundred nurses and health professionals from across the country came to Washington, D.C., for the annual conference, April 20-21, where they heard AFT president Randi Weingarten and others stress the value of the work they do and the importance of working with the community.

"It's always remarkable to me—the work that you do," said Weingarten, who praised members of the AFT's healthcare division for their professionalism and dedication.

Members of the community know the value of healthcare workers, as well, she told conference participants. "They know how important your job is to the vitality of the community. As union members, you have two huge assets when it comes to making a difference in the lives of others: moxie and heart. Now is the time to use those assets to bring our communities together."

It's by partnering with the community that labor will be able to withstand the attacks on workers and the middle class, Weingarten stressed. "You know the opposition's game plan. They are coming after our rights. We have to fight back against these efforts."

The way we fight back has to be different today than the way we fought back 30 years ago, added Weingarten, and it starts with connecting with the community. "We may not always agree, but we share the same beliefs and values" as many members of our communities, she said. "Community is our new density."

John Nichols, Washington correspondent for The Nation and MSNBC, gave a fiery, often funny, speech during the conference's opening session. A Wisconsin resident, Nichols chronicled the Wisconsin uprising that began in February 2011 when Gov. Scott Walker used a budget bill to eliminate public employee collective bargaining rights. "If they come for your rights, you should rise up and say no," he told the crowd. "This fight isn't over until we win it. It's not over until the trade union movement gets the protection it deserves. We are going to restore decency, freedom and democracy to America."

"We should counter money power with people power," Nichols said.

Photo: Michael CampbellPhoto: Michael Campbell.

Addressing the conference's closing session, Vincent DeMarco, executive director of the Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative, shared the successful plan of action his group set in motion to address health issues in his state. By partnering with community organizations, the initiative was able to help reduce the number of smokers in Maryland by 30 percent. The group's efforts also allowed more than 70,000 uninsured Marylanders to get healthcare benefits.

"By expanding healthcare for the uninsured, we help everyone. We all benefit," said DeMarco. He encouraged AFT members to partner with others in their communities to address health disparities and, ultimately, to use those coalitions to implement and build on the success of the Affordable Care Act.

The three-day conference also included workshops on workplace violence, bullying, substance abuse, best practices for pain management, communication skills and healthcare reform. [Adrienne Coles]

April 27, 2012