AFT members make May 1 actions memorable

"Build schools, not walls" was the crisp, compelling message delivered by AFT activists at a series of May 1 actions stretching from Miami to San Francisco. The AFT, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools and the National Education Association coordinated the day of action, and participation was impressive—2,000 sites in 200 cities, according to estimates, with even greater numbers joining the groundswell through social media.

Through marches, rallies and meetings, AFT members joined with immigrant communities, students, parents and engaged citizens to support public education and to fight for a more fair and just immigration system. The rallies showed collective resolve: to keep schools as safe spaces, free from immigration raids, bigotry and hate, and to demand that funds meant for a border wall be used instead to strengthen public schools.

Randi Weingarten with United Teachers of Dade members

Southern Florida hosted some of the biggest events of the day, with morning rallies at Miami Dade College and in Fort Lauderdale. AFT President Randi Weingarten was a featured speaker, joined by Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) and United Teachers of Dade President Karla Hernandez-Mats (pictured above). During the day, Weingarten also visited with educators, parents and students at several schools, highlighting the importance of investing in high-quality neighborhood public education—and stressing how the latest White House education budget would have concrete and disastrous effects on each school's ability to help students reach their potential.

"You think about all the intervention programs, all the after-school programs, all the athletic programs—the stuff that engages kids, the stuff that you love doing—all of that is on the chopping block," under President Trump's budget, the AFT president told a crowd at Miami's Carol City Senior High School, which stands to lose a half-million dollars just for after-school programs in the next fiscal year under the plan. It's a "meat cleaver budget" built on "the largest education cut ever and the largest per-capita cut since Ronald Reagan," Weingarten warned.

It was just one of many powerful moments in a full day of AFT action:

  • In Baltimore, AFT Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson joined a crowd of parents, students and staff at the Wolfe Street Academy during their early morning "Joys and Concerns" session (pictured below). The school, where about 80 percent of the families speak a language other than English, is exactly the sort of place the AFT wants to support with its Building Schools, Not Walls campaign. Johnson noted that immigrants who have come to the United States for "economic opportunity, freedom and a shot at the American dream" have instead, in recent months, encountered hate.

"Instead of unity," she said, "we see division. Now more than ever, we should be working together to build schools, not walls. We should be investing in public education, instead of defunding it. And most importantly, we must teach our students—both at home and at school—about togetherness, instead of trying to divide families by color, creed or citizenship status."

Lorretta Johnson with Baltimore Teacher Union members

  • Even snow could not deter hundreds of members of the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, including AFT Executive Vice President Mary Cathryn Ricker (picture below), from seizing public attention with a pro-education, pro-worker rally that highlighted the importance of safeguarding immigrant students and their families from deportation. Participants met early in the evening at a downtown plaza in Minneapolis before joining up with the larger International Workers' Day march. Ricker addressed the crowd and highlighted the importance of investing in high-quality neighborhood public schools where all young people—no matter their race, religion, ethnicity or citizenship status—feel safe, loved and respected.

Mary Cathryn Ricker in St. Paul

"We've seen some promising things in the last 100 days," despite efforts under the current administration to ban certain immigrants, to push a draconian federal budget proposal and to leave a rise in hate crime unchecked, Ricker told the crowd. There have been "massive actions in schools across the country saying, in no uncertain terms, our schools are welcoming places for all students, no matter their citizenship status, their sexual orientation, their refugee status, their religion, their gender identity or their socio-economic status." This day, she said, is another opportunity for the union family to come together with "so many friends and allies sharing this rally to say, 'Build schools, NOT walls! And we are not done yet.'"

  • For Rutgers AAUP-AFT members, one individual's story galvanized May 1 actions: Carimer Andujar, the energetic and outspoken president of UndocuRutgers, has Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status, but her renewal was recently delayed for no apparent reason. Rutgers AAUP-AFT helped create the #HandsOffCarimer campaign, and Andujar says she thinks the bureaucratic snag has been solved. She remains fearful, however, about an upcoming renewal meeting with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and spoke as part of the protests for all immigrants. Members of the Coalition of Rutgers Unions, AFT New Jersey and student organizations rallied on three Rutgers campuses to make New Jersey a sanctuary state and for a $15 minimum wage, the right to form a union and racial justice for all.
  • In San Francisco, the message from United Educators of San Francisco was loud and clear, starting in the early morning with a protest at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement building. It continued at rallies and a march to City Hall, where banners in English and Spanish declared "Sanctuary City!" and "Sanctuary School!" Crowds of immigrant advocates, including members of AFT 2121 (pictured below), which represents faculty at City College of San Francisco, and a large contingent from the San Francisco Labor Council, joined protests planned by the Bay Area Resistance. Teachers later gathered en masse at the Civic Center to sign a pledge to protect and defend all students.

United Educators of San Francisco rally

  • The day at Quincy (Ill.) Senior High School began with a rally that celebrated the work done inside the school district and a stark warning of how federal and state cuts could spell disaster for those services. In Illinois, "more and more of funding of schools has depended on property taxes or private citizens, while assistance of the state has gone down and down," Quincy Federation of Teachers and Educational Support Personnel Co-President Jen Drew told the room. "Not getting a budget since Gov. [Bruce] Rauner took office has created a situation where payments for buses, lunches and special education services are arriving months late."

Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery, who is an AFT vice president, also was at the rally and called on Rauner to get an education budget in place and to work for school funding reform. He urged the crowd to remain steadfast in its support for public education. Great public schools "happen because communities get together, want them, demand them and care for them. That's what's happening in Quincy.

Day of action rally in Illinois

  • Members of the Chicago Teachers Union joined thousands of other activists from the civil rights community to defend public schools and immigrant students, starting with a series of rallies at individual schools and culminating with a mass rally at Daley Plaza in the afternoon. "May Day has always been a day for workers' rights," said CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey, and it remains critical in 2017. "It's important that we draw a line and say it's not OK to privatize our services and starve our schools and hurt our workplaces. Our society should be one where students go to a good school, where workers are respected in our jobs, and where the political environment funds our schools and supports us as workers."
  • Hundreds of AFT activists joined in Pittsburgh's May Day march and rally on Monday afternoon. Despite pouring rain and a tornado watch, members turned out in force for the march and rally, followed by a discussion about sanctuary schools and education equity, at the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers headquarters. Pittsburgh AFT members are calling on members of Congress to stop the assault on their neighbors, students and schools, and instead build schools, not walls. "We demand that our schools be safe spaces free from the threat of ICE raids, racism and bullying," said PFT Vice President William Hileman, "and that billions not be spent on a wall, but on strengthening public schools to educate all our children, regardless of immigration status."
  • Members of the Peoria (Ill.) Federation of Teachers joined community allies for a high-energy downtown rally that called out cuts to education and stood strong for schools as safe places for all children. Giselle Ochoa, a freshman at Manual Academy, said rumors of immigration raids had become a daily torment for some classmates and their families. "I don't think students should be scared every day just because of where their parents are from," said Ochoa, who was born in the United States but knows how these worries are a daily burden for some friends. The rally was an important moment to bring the community together and to reaffirm and celebrate the mission of public education, explained teacher and PFT Political Diversity Director Linda Wilson. "We as teachers want to build a sense of community with our students and let them know they are our family," she said.

Joan Copp of the local advocacy group Peoria No Ban No Wall drew cheers when she told the crowd, "Peoria must proudly stand in defiance of xenophobic policies" and against the cold-blooded cuts that now threaten education. "To [Education Secretary] Betsy DeVos, we say the right to public education is nonnegotiable. Our children are not commodities. Our children are not profit margins. Our children are not a tool to make your friends rich."

[Staff and news reports]