Charting a way forward

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Our members scored massive victories in this year’s midterm elections, AFT President Randi Weingarten declared in a keynote address to state leaders this week at the AFT Legislative/Political Conference. But the real achievements are yet to come.

Randi Weingarten at AFT political conference

Pausing to praise hundreds of members in their third day of a historic charter school strike in Chicago, Weingarten marked the fact that our union finds itself in a place we haven’t been in a generation—a place where voters have begun to swing back in favor of public services.

More Americans voted this year than in any other midterm election in more than a century. Young people, single people and suburbanites stepped up to vote. It took a while for the wave to crest, but AFT members helped flip nearly 40 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, where, for the first time ever, a majority of the majority will be made up of women and people of color.

Roughly half the 300 AFT members who ran this year won. And the candidates we supported ran on platforms that matched the AFT’s core values: great public schools and colleges for all, good jobs that support a decent life, affordable healthcare, the fight against discrimination and the defense of democracy.

Now that we have these new leaders in place, we need to get things done, Weingarten said. We have to turn these victories into laws and policies that improve people’s lives, like dealing with gun violence and student loan debt. For example, she suggested mandating that every new public employee automatically be enrolled in student loan forgiveness when they start their first job.

“We have this moment in time when we can move people,” Weingarten said. “Through engagement with our members and the community, we as a union can become the vehicle of movement toward a better life. Because if we don’t grow and build on what just happened, then we will lose it.”

Rep. Nancy Pelosi also addressed AFT leaders at the conference and thanked AFT members across the country for showing up for the midterm elections. And she asked members to stay engaged.

Nancy Pelosi at AFT political conference

“It’s going to be an interesting time. I want people to think of the House as a national town hall; we want you to tune in on social media.”

Pelosi celebrated the fact that more women, LGBTQ people, people of color and veterans will enter this Congress than ever before.

“This diversity of background will strengthen us,” she said. “Now, we have to channel all this enthusiasm, difference and energy in a way that keeps us focused on our “for the people” agenda. Diversity is strength, unity is power: That’s true for Congress and also for the AFT.”

In her speech, Pelosi outlined a political agenda that includes lowering the cost of prescription drugs, preserving coverage for those with pre-existing conditions, building infrastructure, reducing the role of dark money in politics, ensuring a vote on the future for Dreamers and requiring commonsense background checks for gun buyers.

“We should be building infrastructure, not building walls but building schools,” Pelosi said. “Nothing brings more money to the treasury than investing in education—whether it’s early childhood education, K-12, college, postgrad, or lifetime learning for workers. Education and job readiness come together in a very important way. And we must do everything we can to enable young people and lifetime learners so people can fulfill those aspirations they have for themselves and their children.”

For the AFT’s path forward, trust is key

The key to building a better life for workers is building coalitions and trust, Weingarten said. It’s what we did in the run-up to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Janus v. AFSCME. It’s what we did during the school strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona. And it’s what we’re doing in Chicago right now as public charter school educators stand on the picket lines for the first time ever. “It’s people coming together in all these unlikely places,” she said, “to support our values.”

Since Janus, our members have been sticking with the union. “We are doing better than I ever, ever could have imagined,” Weingarten said, recalling how, at the AFT convention in July, the highlight for her was when delegates took the microphones and talked about the work they were doing to engage members. “That is an amazing tribute to every one of our leaders, every one of our activists and members.”

As we start this new era, the AFT president said, the nation’s climate has changed. Americans are beginning to acknowledge the effects of poverty—and they’ve stopped blaming teachers for it. They also are beginning to reject privatization of public services.

Weingarten charted a way forward in her speech, saying that AFT leaders and activists across the country must engage our members and communities around our shared values and aspirations. We must prove day in and day out that the union is the vehicle for a better life, a voice at work and a stronger democracy.

“We have been through so many existential threats, I can’t even name them. We have gone through a lot together,” Weingarten said. “Now we have been granted a moment of transformation that is within our grasp. Now is our moment to seize it, to make a better life for people, because by joining together in our union, we can accomplish things that would be impossible for individuals on their own.”

[Annette Licitra]