The beating heart of our union

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AFT activists understand that member engagement is how we will keep building our union, AFT President Randi Weingarten told delegates this afternoon.

“You know that together, we can accomplish what would be impossible alone,” she said. “The only question after the Janus decision is how to proceed. The answer is member engagement, which is how we move forward and how we build power.”

Weingarten introduced three leaders who have worked for meaningful member engagement in their local unions. Two years ago, she said, the AFT committed to having a face-to-face conversation with every member. These leaders exemplify that kind of member engagement.

Andy Pallotta is president of the New York State United Teachers, which set goals of having one-to-one conversations and “recommitment” cards from every member by this fall. “I am happy to report that as of today, 85 percent of our members have re-signed a card,” Pallotta told delegates. “To give you a sense of scale, that’s over 200,000 members.”

The union also has spearheaded a NYSUT Member Organizing Institute, which prepares members for door-knocking and the art of one-on-one conversations. The institute has trained more than 500 members to visit with members in their homes and talk to them about the value of unions.

“Everyone is an organizer,” Pallotta said. “We’ve knocked on over 100,000 doors, and this summer we’ll be out in full force all around the state speaking to every member, warning them about union busters.”

Since our opponents’ post-Janus, anti-union campaigns have begun, he said, only nine members have dropped their membership, while 9,000 members have re-committed to NYSUT. “This Janus decision is going to be a good thing for us,” he added. “We’re getting back to our roots. [Former AFT President] Albert Shanker sat down with members at their kitchen tables. If we don’t talk with members, we won’t have a union.”

Pallotta had a parting shot for union busters. “If I could look them in the eye right now, I’d tell them one thing: Bring it on!”

How it’s playing in Peoria

Jeff Adkins-Dutro, president of the Peoria (Ill.) Federation of Teachers, used a grant from the AFT Innovation Fund to collaborate with the public schools, the mayor’s office and the local economic development council to align career training for high school students with local job opportunities. He also helped lead the Peoria People’ Project, which seeks to improve the lives of working people across the city through political action. His efforts recently earned an award from the city’s Republican mayor.

Since emulating the organizing model of the Chicago Teachers Union and tapping the Illinois Federation of Teachers for experience and advice, Adkins-Dutro and PFT have re-carded and recommitted 90 percent of their membership. What’s more, PFT rallied 500 of its 950 members, and 96 percent of their schools, for walk-ins with the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, an AFT partner.

Like Pallotta, the Peoria leader issued a challenge and a warning to union busters—although he says his actual language is more colorful. “I’m sticking with my union,” he says. “Don’t contact me again.”

Awesome in Boston

Before becoming president of the Boston Teachers Union, Jessica Tang was the affiliate’s first organizing director, whose aims were building membership and building connections among members. Because Tang understands the links between social justice and member engagement, BTU has gone on to organize three charter schools and to re-card more than 95 percent of members.

“We wanted to make sure all our members know who we are and what we stand for as a union: that we are about building power for our students, our schools and our educators,” Tang said from the stage. “We wanted to make sure BTU members know that our collective action and power matter.”

Sometimes, she said, members simply don’t know about the awesome work the union is doing. When they learn about it, that reaffirms their commitment. For example, Tang said to cheers, BTU is fighting for full funding, special education, adequate staffing, restorative practices, social-emotional learning and community schools. And they’re also fighting for undocumented students, as well as Puerto Rican and Haitian educators, and fighting against racism, making sure students know that black lives matter, that everyone is welcome, and that love is love.

“We are doing awesome work,” Tang declared. “Why wouldn’t you want to be a part of the Boston Teachers Union?”

Union Proud

Many others shared in bragging rights from both the podium and the convention floor. Brenda Marks, a paraeducator at Arsenal Middle School in host city Pittsburgh, joined her school’s recommit campaign and helped win 100 percent recommitment from her colleagues.

“I have to admit—it was surprisingly easy,” Marks said, explaining that nobody wants to let their fellow members down. “All it takes is a simple conversation. And, just from having conversations about what our dues pay for, we were able to double our political contributions.”

We need to be our own advocates, but we don’t have to go it alone, Marks added. “As individuals, we don’t have a chance. But by sticking together, we can overcome anything.”

By virtue of being named Maryland’s Teacher of the Year last year, Sia Kyriakakos, a member of the Baltimore Teachers Union, has a bigger platform now to advocate for her students and colleagues. She credits the AFT Teacher Leaders Program with preparing her for that role.

“When I started working in Baltimore City, I walked into my classroom to find it without chairs and tables,” she said. “When I asked my principal about them, he told me to make friends and go on Freecycle. I felt like I was screaming but no sound was coming out.”

Out of this waking nightmare, Kyriakakos found her voice in the AFT Teacher Leaders Program. There she joined like-minded colleagues, built networks within the community and used the power of the Baltimore union—people who cared whether students had tables and books, art and preschool.

“If you think teaching is not political, you are wrong,” she said. “Teaching is a political act on its own. I learned to demand what was right for my students. I learned to advocate for every teacher. I stand strong and unwavering because I have my union behind me.”

Anthony Johnston, president of the Cook County College Teachers Union in Chicago, said that the higher education affiliate has eight chapters with 100 percent recommits, and an overall recommitment rate of 85 percent, which is “only going up.”

Ed Leavy, president of the State Vocational Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of AFT Connecticut, didn’t mince words. “We have 1,218 members and zero deadbeat freeloaders,” he announced.

Jackie Anderson, secretary-treasurer of the Houston Federation of Teachers, said that even a hurricane hasn’t stopped her union: “We’re Houston strong.”

And Wayne Spence, president of the New York State Public Employees Federation, said his union, through a series of targeted trainings and campaigns, already has 90 percent of its recommits in hand. He, too, had parting words for our adversaries. “Janus can go kick rocks,” he said, “because union rocks!”

[Annette Licitra / photos by Michael Campbell]