The AFT’s five membership divisions met Friday afternoon and discussed such issues as professional development for teachers, safe staffing levels in hospitals, threats to our nation’s democracy and attacks on public sector employees worldwide. Running through these discussions were delegates’ concerns about the quality of services for students and the people we serve.
Teachers: A focus on solving problems
At the AFT’s convention, teachers from across the country shared insights on how professional development can help them build union power and improve their communities. During a panel discussion, leaders talked about how they have worked with the AFT’s educational issues department and community partners to find solutions to local problems. Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers President Nina Esposito-Visgitis highlighted programs her affiliate has launched, including a groundbreaking career and technical education curriculum that gives students a chance to learn in-demand skills. “So much of what we have done springs from the help of the AFT,” she said.
That sentiment was echoed by Detroit Federation of Teachers President Ivy Bailey. “The AFT helped us save our union,” she said. That effort led to a change of direction in Detroit. Today, Bailey said, the city has an elected school board and “a superintendent who works with us.” The DFT is working with the school district to create community schools.
Teachers division Chair Donna Chiera, president of AFT New Jersey, said that the AFT’s professional development resources can help build membership. “Management usually has no clue about professional development. If we can bring something to the table that is by teachers and for teachers,” she said, “that is also a great organizing tool.”
Texas AFT President Louis Malfaro said the union’s professional development and community schools efforts help Texas locals engage members, recruit new people and create bridges to community partners. Professional development, he said, is part of the locals’ effort to be a “first friend and best friend” to new educators. “We must give people a reason to join,” he said, noting that Texas is a right-to-work, nonbargaining state.
PSRPs: A fond farewell
AFT paraprofessionals and school-related personnel bid farewell to their longtime leader Ruby Newbold, who retired this spring as president of the Detroit Association of Educational Office Employees. With heartfelt tributes from AFT and international union leaders, plus plenty of cake to celebrate, the AFT PSRP division surprised Newbold, who also is an AFT vice president and chair of the PSRP program and policy council.
Rosa Pavanelli, general secretary of Public Services International, credited Newbold with being the first leader of AFT PSRP to commit to creating a worldwide network of educational support staff who share a desire for basic dignity and respect on the job. “We need to build bridges because we are one,” Pavanelli said, pledging to carry on the work Newbold began of defending students and public education around the globe.
AFT Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson offered an emotional tribute to Newbold, recalling her own nervousness when she became a national AFT leader. Newbold brought together PSRP activists to form a circle around Johnson and tell her, “We are your strength.” “This lady gave me the confidence I needed to grow into a national officer,” Johnson said. “Thank you for being my friend. Thank you for representing these people here. And thank you for leaving a legacy.”
AFT President Randi Weingarten wrapped up the celebration with a story about when she herself was in high school and the school secretaries—just like Newbold and her DAEOE members—had Weingarten’s back.
“Every time I think it’s hopeless, I remember what Ruby did in Detroit” to keep her union alive, Weingarten said. “It wasn’t a miracle—it was the hard work of this woman. She’s union through and through.”
Higher education: Threat to democracy
Nancy MacLean’s message to members of AFT’s higher education division was grim but ended on a hopeful note. Her presentation, based on her book Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, described the roots of the radical right’s efforts to undermine public sector services and shift power to the already powerful elite. By supporting policies such as gerrymandering voter districts, attacking labor unions, fighting anti-discrimination policies, promoting privatization and more, the Koch brothers and other libertarian, profit-oriented and privileged groups have intentionally begun to undermine the foundation of democracy.
Ultimately, says MacLean, the “Koch network” wants to dismantle the Constitution itself and has already begun planning for a constitutional convention that could rewrite some of the most basic tenets of the public good. It may sound crazy, she admitted, but 28 states of the 34 required to approve a constitutional convention have already agreed to move forward.
“What we’re seeing is far more than partisan,” said MacLean. “It is actually a messianic plan to fundamentally change the relationships between the government and the people, and to do so permanently.”
In the end, however, MacLean suggested that historians of the future might look back on this time and marvel not only at the “audacious bid to transform our society” but perhaps at the “11th-hour organizing that stymied that bid.”
Public employees: Protecting the people
Rosa Pavanelli is not being paranoid. The general secretary of Public Services International visited the divisional meeting of AFT Public Employees to bring a warning. “We are witnessing an attack on public services and, with it, an attack on public sector unions,” she said. “I’m not the kind of person who sees conspiracies everywhere, but it is true that around the world there’s a strategy to prioritize profits over people. And who’s going to pay the price? Workers and their trade unions.”
The only way to expose what’s happening is through our unions and partners, through campaigns that create momentum for political change, Pavanelli said. Our adversaries are committed to attacks on public services through international trade agreements like NAFTA. The solution: Keep public services out of trade agreements. She also cited other tactics privatizers are using to maximize their profits: shifting the tax burden to workers, increasing the use of tax evasion and keeping tax shelters flourishing, not only in the islands but in London and the Netherlands.
“These are the root causes of growing poverty and inequality,” Pavanelli said to applause, while urging AFT activists to fight for our union. “The money is there, but it’s in the wrong pockets.”
Healthcare: Staffing and safety
The AFT is the fastest-growing healthcare union, said Candice Owley, chair of the AFT Nurses and Health Professionals program and policy council. These are difficult times, but the AFT healthcare division is fighting for healthcare for all. Although there have been challenges, Owley told healthcare activists, the division’s tremendous growth is the result of organizing and getting members to recommit to the union.
Healthcare workers must articulate the worth of the union to the community and to our families and friends, said Anne Goldman, vice president of private sector and non-New York City Department of Education members at the United Federation of Teachers. Goldman encouraged delegates to reflect on their power as union members.
Staffing and safety will continue to be key issues for healthcare members. Vicky Byrd, executive director of the Montana Nurses Association, discussed its worker safety campaign called “Your Nurse Wears Combat Boots: Improving Workplace Safety for Healthcare Workers.” For the past two years, the nurses have worked for legislation to make it a felony to assault a nurse or healthcare worker while on duty.
Donna Kelly-Williams, president of the Massachusetts Nurses Association, talked about the union’s campaign to put safe staffing limits on the state ballot for 2018. Adrienne Enghouse, the president of the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, recalled volunteering in Boston to help gather signatures for the campaign. Thanks to volunteers like Enghouse, the union has collected the 300,000 signatures necessary, and in November, voters will have a chance to put limits on the number of patients assigned to a registered nurse.
“Every time we go to the negotiating table, we beg for safer staffing and give up wages, vacation, to get it,” Kelly-Williams said. “But enough is enough. We need to fight for ourselves and our patients.”
[From staff reports.]