AFT leaders at nexus of Asian American and labor movements

As hundreds of people from across the country gathered at the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance’s 17th biennial convention in Seattle, some of the AFT’s most active leaders were there to drive compelling conversations and workshops, spotlight Asian American and Pacific Islander workers in the labor movement and help build power across union affiliations and nations of origin.

AFT and National Education Association members gather at the APALA convention.
AFT and National Education Association members gather at the APALA convention.

The convention, Aug. 3-6, featured sessions on a broad array of topics, including labor’s role in addressing the climate crisis, organizing migrant worker solidarity and building political power for elections. Guest speakers included Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.)—the first South Asian American woman elected to the House of Representatives—as well as acting U.S. Secretary of Labor Julie Su and Washington State Labor Council President April Sims.

Jessica Tang, Boston Teachers Union president, an AFT vice president and APALA treasurer, moderated a panel on labor rights under attack across the globe, highlighting the challenges faced by Asian, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander and immigrant workers and exploring the ways APALA is helping them fight back. Panelists talked about organizing Uber and Lyft drivers in the United States, combating anti-Asian hate and increasing AANHPI civic engagement, among other issues.

Kent Wong, the founding president of APALA, director of the UCLA Labor Center and a vice president of the California Federation of Teachers, joined Tracy Lai, a professor at Seattle Central College, co-chair of the AFT’s AAPI Task Force and a member of the AFT’s Civil and Human Rights Committee, to outline Seattle’s rich AAPI and labor history; then the group headed to the city’s international district to support Embassy Suites hotel workers demanding a fair contract.

Convention participants supported hotel workers fighting for a fair contract.
Convention participants supported hotel workers fighting for a fair contract.

Wong and Lai also joined Arlene Inouye, a long-time United Teachers Los Angeles member and former UTLA secretary-treasurer, for a workshop overview of AAPI labor history and its connection to APALA, focusing on the personal stories of APALA organizers and including resources and curriculum for educators. And Wong, Lai and Inouye, with Jessica Tang, ran a workshop on racial justice, discussing affirmative action, ethnic studies and immigrant students. Meanwhile, several United Federation of Teachers (New York City) members joined New York State United Teachers Secretary-Treasurer Philippe Abraham to describe their own lives as immigrant, first-generation Americans, in a workshop called Many Threads One Fabric.

In addition to the networking and inspiration, the convention took care of business: Delegates passed 12 resolutions ranging from support for union contract campaigns, including graduate workers in the AFT; a commitment to fight to protect Chinatowns and other ethnic enclaves; support for affirmative action; and solidarity with struggling workers in places including the Philippines, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

During officer elections, several AFT members took office: Emily Reyes (UTLA) as second vice president, Seung Lee (UFT) as treasurer; and Kasi Perreira, Annawa Naing and Marlan Maralit as at-large vice presidents.

There was also a slate of award winners, including Tracy Lai, who was given the Philip Vera Cruz Lifetime Achievement Award.

[Virginia Myers]