Conference Shows How Public Employees Are Fighting Back

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The insidious attacks on the affordability of government programs and services, combined with the assault on public employees' collective bargaining rights and compensation, dominated the agenda at the joint conference of AFT Public Employees and AFT Healthcare.

A chorus of speakers at the March 31-April 2 gathering in Las Vegas shared a universal message: The attacks against public employees in Florida, Indiana, Michigan, New Hampshire, Ohio and Wisconsin, to name a few, are fundamentally an attack on all working families—unionized and nonunionized. The attacks aren't driven by what's best for the common good of the nation but what's good for corporations and the super wealthy. Their agenda is driven by an ideology that is anti-government, anti-regulation, anti-workers' rights. And their pockets are deep.

"Working people's aspirations for a middle-class lifestyle are what is at stake," AFT president Randi Weingarten told the more than 325 participants from two dozen states, the District of Columbia and Guam in a video message aired during the opening session. "Our challenge is to take this moment and turn it into a movement. Remember, this a marathon—not a sprint."

Turning the moment into a movement is key, said AFT executive vice president Lorretta Johnson. At this moment, she explained, the question is not what is the union going to do about it? Rather, the question is: What are you going to do about it? Each union member makes the difference. And "it is absolutely essential that we reconnect with our communities," because some people think they don't need a union—they think their bosses are going to give them a 40-hour workweek and health insurance.

The theme of the conference, "Making a Difference Every Day," spoke both to the work of public employees and healthcare workers as well as to what union members need to do to counter the attacks on working families. "This is the fight of our lives, and as Randi has said so forcefully, so many times, 'failure is not an option,' " said Bruce Ludwig, chair of the AFT Public Employees program and policy council and business manager of the Alaska Public Employees Association.

Special guest John Nichols, associate editor of the Capital Times in Madison, Wis., and Washington correspondent for The Nation, said the political class, including some Democrats, has said the nation is in a post-unionized era, "which has been fundamentally unproven in the last two months."

Unions, Nichols said at a joint luncheon April 1, "dare to defend the quality of public service and public education, and that is what terrified Scott Walker and the Republicans." The lesson all union members should learn from Wisconsin, he said, is: Keep coming.

"You keep coming; and even if they tell you that you are losing, you don't listen to them," said Nichols. This is a movement not of Wisconsin, not of Ohio, not of Michigan, not of New Jersey, but of this whole country, he added. "It's a movement where we are going to surprise all those folks who said we were finished."

Union organizer and labor lawyer Mark Richard, president of United Faculty of Miami-Dade College, gave the group of leaders, members and affiliate staff their marching orders at the closing session April 2. First, he said, business as usual is not good enough anymore. Second, we have to look at our union as one organism. Third, we cannot make this a union fight because it is not. "It is a civil rights fight." Fourth, we must stand up for those we serve. Fifth, you need to make a covenant with yourself—a "promise to yourself that you are never giving up. Then, they can't beat us."

If the labor movement is dead—as some elected officials, political operatives and talking heads assert—why, Richard asked, have they chosen to attack this group that represents maybe 14 percent of the population? Because "we have people, power and resources, and we tend to be one of the few groups that will fight for justice." The corporate power wants to write unlimited checks in the electoral process, he said. "Move us out of the way, and they are running to the goal line."

Patrick Bresette of Public Works: The Demos Center for the Public Sector conducted a pre-conference workshop March 31 on "Making the Case for Public Services and Public Workers." The center's research reveals that most people have a blurry sense of government, and when they do think of government, they think of politics, Bresette said. "If politics is the dominant image,” it’s essential that we help people "remember the mission of government—it is the place where we are supposed to protect the public interests," including the common good and community well-being, he said.

An entire plenary session on April 1 was devoted to Wisconsin with speakers recounting their experiences in the state Capitol and in the community from the day Gov. Scott Walker released his budget repair bill in February gutting collective bargaining for more than 200,000 Wisconsinites.

The big news of the day: The first recall petition against a Republican senator was filed. The room broke out into thunderous applause. Within four weeks, volunteers had collected more than 20,000 signatures to file the recall petition against Sen. Dan Kapanke, said Scott Spector, government relations director for AFT-Wisconsin. Kapanke of La Crosse, Spector noted, had been endorsed by the state federation in the last election because of his support for collective bargaining rights for University of Wisconsin system faculty and staff; but the senator later moved in lockstep with Walker. Spector said another recall petition for a second state Senate Republican would likely be filed the week of April 4.

In a nod to the Wisconsin delegation, AFT executive vice president Johnson said: "You have set the goal for all our states in crisis." [Kathy Nicholson]

April 5, 2011