Austin visit highlights the power of union membership

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Unions are the empowering vehicle that turns member values into action. That was a driving message when AFT President Randi Weingarten visited schools and partners in Austin, Texas, on the Aug. 24 leg of a national back-to-school tour by the AFT's officers.

The first stop in Austin was an early visit to Nelson Bus Terminal, where school bus drivers were about to embark on morning rounds. "Parents put their kids in your hands every single day," Weingarten told the drivers. "They have faith in you—that you're going to get kids to school safe not only physically but emotionally," protected from mounting modern pressures like bullying.

Weingarten with immigrants students in Austin

The school employees at Nelson terminal, many of them members of Education Austin, engaged in a candid conversation with Weingarten, Texas AFT President Louis Malfaro (an AFT vice president) and Education Austin President Ken Zarifis about the critical role they play in the school mission—and the essential ways that unions can support their livelihood and effectiveness at work. Texas prohibits formal collective bargaining, yet AFT affiliates around the state have crafted innovative approaches in that landscape: exclusive consultation agreements between unions and school systems that preserve and promote rank-and-file voice in major decisions.

Member engagement and union growth are key to that effort, Weingarten emphasized. "Members become the protective shield" in this environment. "The more members we organize, the better we do," which leads to recognition from districts and policymakers that is "not just in lip service but in the pocketbook."

Organizing and growth was a natural theme for the Austin visits. Education Austin, working with support from AFT volunteers from as far away as New York City, has spent two weeks in a back-to-school organizing blitz, encouraging new and prospective members in schools across the district to hold one-on-one conversations with current members to better understand and appreciate the advantage of belonging to a union that wants their membership, involvement and voice.

Weingarten at membership meeting

One of the schools involved in the blitz, International High School, was the next stop on the tour—a school that, like many buildings in the system, serves a broad swath of a community where the fate of the Obama-era policy known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, is a point of daily anxiety and worry.

This month, Texas and nine other states threatened to sue the Trump administration if it doesn't act quickly to kill DACA, which has protected 800,000 "Dreamers" from deportation. Education Austin members and leaders from International High and other schools have been active in the resistance: Education Austin officers and members were among the protesters arrested and jailed on Aug. 15 after joining with activists from United We Dream and other groups to stand in defiance outside the office of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a leader in the multistate movement against DACA.

That backdrop of a DACA backlash, and the rising threat to daily life posed by the resurgence of hate-group agitation, shaded many of the conversations Weingarten shared with students, teachers, staff and administrators at International High School, a school that "takes all students and embraces our values," Weingarten noted.

"In America right now, we are in a battle between the inclusive values we share, and divisiveness and fear" promoted by fringe groups, the AFT president observed. The International High School community is on the just side of that divide and "shows the potential and promise of purposeful public education."

That message carried through when Weingarten attended a union meeting with Education Austin leaders and members late that afternoon. "In Austin, you're fighting for what works, fighting against what doesn't and showing how unions make a difference," she told the crowd. "You're connecting labor and community and confronting hostile forces that want to strip us of our rights.

"Austin is a living, breathing example of how to fight in that environment and win, and is in many ways a model for America. We need that fight—to resist and reclaim—more than ever."

[Staff reports]