AFT President Randi Weingarten leveled with members during our union’s Sept. 28 telephone town hall. The reason they heard some urgency in her voice, she explained, is that major legislation forming the centerpiece of a prosperous American future faces “lots of obstacles” right now.
We need two economic bills—informally known as the infrastructure bill and the reconciliation or “human infrastructure” bill, Weingarten said. But just as President Lyndon Johnson faced stiff headwinds in passing his Great Society programs, including Medicare, Medicaid and the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, so too does President Joe Biden.
Biden aims to rebuild the middle class through two main bills: a bipartisan bill to fix traditional infrastructure like roads and bridges, and the Build Back Better Act, a visionary set of laws that would provide paid family leave, child care and affordable prescription drugs—“the kinds of things we know families need.”
Weingarten introduced House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a true friend of the AFT who urged members to keep up the pressure on their representatives in Congress. Pelosi said it brought her great joy to meet with AFT activists: “You are the custodians of our children for a large part of their lives.”
Pelosi said these landmark laws would ensure that when we tell children it’s important to study, they’ll see that we’re sending them to safe, welcoming and well-equipped schools.
The Build Back Better Act includes $82 billion for rebuilding and repairing K-12 schools. It also would create green jobs and strengthen Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act, as well as make historic investments in higher education, extend child tax credits and make much-needed provisions for child care, which would by some estimates free a million parents to re-enter the workforce.
And maybe the best part: The Build Back Better Act would be fully paid for by closing loopholes and making the rich pay their fair share. But some rich and powerful people are opposing the legislation because they don’t want to pay more taxes, Pelosi said. We need to get it over the finish line, she said, crediting Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer for guiding the bills and honoring their commitment to AFT members, who “do the most important jobs in the world.”
Weingarten recognized members for pulling together through the pandemic, from nurses to teachers to bus drivers. And she thanked Pelosi for working “about 20 hours a day” to bring the bills to fruition.
The AFT president observed that the legislation would reform the tax code to make it fairer and pay for what we want to accomplish—so that nurses, for example, don’t owe a greater percentage in taxes than hedge fund managers.
Weingarten then took questions, starting with one from New Mexico on whether, by moving both infrastructure bills together, Congress risks losing both.
Yes, Weingarten answered. With only slim majorities in the House and Senate, “it’s very hard to do these big foundational pieces of work without getting everybody onboard.” She noted that Republicans and moderate Democrats really want the traditional infrastructure bill, while progressive Democrats really want the reconciliation bill, with leaders trying to bring everyone into the fold.
That’s where AFT members come in: Creating the pressure to get this done.
To a teacher from Texas who loves her job but doesn’t have children and so doesn’t stand to benefit from some of the bills’ sweeping provisions, Weingarten said that many aspects of the laws—like reducing the cost of prescription drugs and strengthening unions through the PRO Act—will help all union members.
“The most important thing we can do is keep you happy for as long as you want to keep teaching, and to win you increases in pay,” Weingarten said, pointing to recent union wins in Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, “so that workers can have a decent part of the American pie.”
A caller from Illinois was concerned about lack of unity among Democrats, to which Weingarten responded that while Democrats do understand the importance of solidarity, the single unifying principle of the GOP is power. Republicans try to exploit the wide ideological spectrum across Democrats to retain power. “It is very messy right now,” she said, but expressed optimism that “we’ll get it done.”
When another caller from Illinois asked how members can help, Weingarten directed her to aft.org/action, where you can click to contact your senators. Or you can get some help writing a letter to the editor of your local newspaper.
“The bottom line is, if you want to help,” she said, “we would be very, very appreciative.”
[Annette Licitra/photo by GettyImages/Alvarez]