AFT members were "All In" at the joint conference of the AFT's higher education and PSRP divisions April 1-3 in Las Vegas. Inspired by personal stories and the larger narrative of members' collective fight against anti-union forces, attendees learned from one another and took away new tools for activating their colleagues back home. They left inspired and ready to raise up the value of working people, public education and the public good—and especially to engage their members and strengthen the power of their collective voice.
Much of the work took place in intimate, sleeves-rolled-up workshops that covered everything from campus safety and sexual assault to student debt, school discipline, multicultural and multiethnic education, and the contingent labor force. Workshops on how to reduce student debt were especially popular across division lines, and many participants walked away with clear paths to lowering their debt and tools to help students do the same.
Some of the most moving moments came in the plenary sessions, including one featuring Sybrina Fulton and Lucia McBath (pictured below, McBath at left). These two mothers of African-American boys became "accidental activists" when their sons were killed by gun violence. Fulton's son, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, was gunned down while walking in a South Florida neighborhood. McBath's son, 17-year-old Jordan Davis, was shot for playing his music "too loud" at a gas station.
Anger into aspiration
The vast conference room was hushed as Fulton described herself as "just a normal, everyday, average person" who came home from work, made dinner and fussed at her children over homework and whether they'd taken out the garbage. Then she was thrust by tragedy into carrying the banner against gun violence and racial injustice. "I would not have given up my son as a sacrifice to help this country," she said. "I would not have signed up for this. I feel like I am walking around missing a part of my heart."
McBath described trying to explain to her son that as a young black male he would have to be vigilant to stay safe. "That he was not always going to be valued was something he just couldn't understand," she said.
McBath and Fulton said they took the anger they felt at losing their children, and their anger at racial injustice, and put it to work. They are both campaigning for Hillary Clinton, and for the stricter gun regulations she advocates. "Just as you continue to fight for your students, we continue to fight for you in the streets," said McBath.
AFT President Randi Weingarten, who spoke later in the conference, thanked them for sharing their stories and noted how they had turned their anger into "an aspiration for our streets to be safe for everyone, regardless of the color of their skin."
"Our job is to take those aspirations and turn them into action," Weingarten said. "That is our job, our covenant and our moral compass." Weingarten cited the AFT's Racial Equity Task Force and the report its members issued last year, with action steps to address racism in schools and public work places as well as in the union. The PSRP and higher education program and policy councils presented an award to AFT Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson for her work in initiating and chairing that groundbreaking task force.
Weingarten highlighted the fight against union-bashing billionaires and lawsuits like the recent Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association as another essential place to turn aspiration into action. Although the Supreme Court ruled in favor of unions in Friedrichs, similar cases are likely to be brought in the future. And anti-union candidates are a big part of the election season at the national, state and local levels. Weingarten noted that the Koch brothers alone are spending nearly $1 billion on the 2016 presidential and congressional campaigns.
But there is a different kind of strength in the labor movement: "Our power derives from collective voice at the bargaining table and the ballot box," she said. Already actions to connect and build membership have made a difference: The union has grown to 1.6 million members, the largest it has ever been.
Weingarten spoke about doubling the number of activists and tripling the rate of engagement. She praised solidarity and applauded the more than 200 selfies sent in solidarity from conference participants to Chicago, where the local union there held a one-day strike to demand adequate funding for their schools.
An entire set of workshops gave participants skills to inspire exactly this sort of action, with specific ideas about how to create activist communities, address member apathy and plan long-term campaigns. The conference, said AFT Executive Vice President Mary Cathryn Ricker, was designed to be an "incubator for your activism at work." In a plenary session on professionalism, she reminded members to take pride in the transformative moments in their work, to remember the importance of public service and public good, and to fight forward to achieve them.
Between workshops and plenaries, conference participants came together at graduate employee and contingent faculty receptions and at more than a dozen breakfast meetings grouped by job description. Many participants attended a pre-conference Jump Start event highlighting members' role in galvanizing their community of Massena, N.Y., where they helped prevent the abrupt departure of the town's main employer. After a presentation about Massena, participants stuffed backpacks with school supplies for students there.
Throughout the conference, members pitched in at a membership engagement phone bank. A health fair featured blood pressure screenings, nutrition and fitness information, and tips for a healthy workplace. And Solidarity Night provided the traditional outlet for talented members to show their union pride on stage. Dozens of Chicago members, dressed in black, marched into the hall to the song "Glory," about civil rights, then led a round of chanting, "When the union is under attack, what do we do? Stand up! Fight back!"
[Virginia Myers and Annette Licitra/photos by Russ Curtis]