Up-and-coming activists in AFT PSRP coached each other—in fact, agitated each other—to take their local unions to the next level of power and influence through a newly designed PSRP leadership conference April 13-15 in St. Louis.
Chosen for solving problems and growing the union, activists kicked off the conference with visioning exercises. Then, buoyed by a fresh victory for public education in West Virginia, they were joined by AFT President Randi Weingarten, who showed how unions can build a better life through trust and community connections at the bargaining table and at the ballot box. (Weingarten, pictured below, sports a T-shirt from Dreama Morris of AFT-West Virginia.)
She cited examples in Delaware, where members held a First Book distribution for children in need, and in Oregon, where members are contacting every potential member. The Oregon School Employees Association (OSEA) is up 1,800 members with its “All In” drive, raising its share of members from 70 percent to 90 percent.
The leaders picked up skills as varied as how to structure one-to-one conversations with prospective members, how to map membership data, and how to build political power.
“Are you ready to do not just the art of this, but the science?” Weingarten asked. “That’s the question: Do we have the discipline, the willingness and the passion?”
Really big wins
For public sector unions, this is the best of times and the worst of times. The worst of times because ultra-right-wing billionaires are pouring money into court cases and other schemes that would weaken unions’ ability to bargain for decent wages, benefits and working conditions. The best of times because employees are fighting back. Every time West Virginia was mentioned, the leaders roared.
Tena McElwain is an eight-year school bus driver in Monongalia County, W.Va. In her first year, she asked herself, “Why do I need to be in a union?” In her second year, she joined. While talking with co-workers at the bus garage, she found out they could apply for a charter with AFT-West Virginia. AFT Monongalia County Service Personnel grew quickly. Now the local is tight, with informed members and a full set of officers, including McElwain as president.
By the time West Virginia teachers and support personnel voted for a work stoppage last month, McElwain and her crew were all in, as they relate in a conversation on AFT Voices. “The union has given me a backbone,” she told the leaders. “It’s given me a voice.”
AFT Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson recalled how she helped Kurt Schmoke become the first African-American elected mayor of Baltimore in 1987, over the objections of her husband, whose uncle was running for the job. Johnson and the Baltimore Teachers Union supported Schmoke because of his pro-education positions, and Baltimore students reaped the benefits.
Other PSRP leaders spoke of their wins. Denise Chase, an OSEA chapter chair, said she used to be shy and didn’t want to make waves. But eight years ago, after a school official told her she didn’t even have the support of her own members, she showed up with a wall of PSRPs, teachers and this response: “How do you like us now?”
These days, she’s automatically included on hiring boards and in policy decisions. She’s done with anyone saying they are “just a” PSRP. Instead, Chase asserts: “I am an educational assistant. I am a custodian. I am a bus driver. And I am to be reckoned with.”
Deeply felt honors
The conference was tinged with sadness with the announcements that PSRP chair Ruby Newbold and PSRP director Tom Moran are retiring, but at the same time energized by the willingness of so many activists to step up.
Weingarten praised Newbold’s leadership through bruising battles for public education as president of the Detroit Association of Educational Office Employees—battles that foreshadowed the harshly anti-education agenda that U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos brought from Michigan to Washington, D.C.
“Despair was never part of your strategy,” Weingarten told Newbold, who is also an AFT vice president. “Resignation was never part of your strategy. You have always found a way to create hope out of challenge, to build resilience out of solidarity.”
Weingarten commended Moran (despite groaning at his corny jokes) for his ability to generate ideas in such a way as to achieve seemingly impossible goals.
In surprising Moran with the Albert Shanker Pioneer Award, Johnson lauded him for building the union (both are pictured above). “When I think of someone working and advocating on behalf of PSRPs, I can think of no better person than Tom Moran,” she said. “He can go into any local and win them over.”
The conference ended with a rendition of “Solidarity Forever.” And Weingarten distilled the essence of our union’s leadership, offering a simple way to explain what we do: “We care. We fight. We show up.”