Johnson visits union-run health clinic in Haiti

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Haiti was the focus of AFT secretary-treasurer Lorretta Johnson's three-day trip Oct. 12-14. On her way to visit a union-run health clinic in Haiti, she stopped in Miami for a meeting in Little Haiti with leaders of the local Haitian and African-American communities as well as PSRPs and leaders from the United Teachers of Dade.

The health clinic in Port-au-Prince, which was started by volunteers from the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals after the devastating 2010 earthquake, is supported by the Confederation of Public and Private Sector Workers (the Haitian federation of public employee unions) and located at their headquarters to serve the families of union members. The clinic is now staffed by a team of Haitian doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers, with a focus on women and infant care. The Haitians are exploring the possibility of opening up the facility to other local schoolchildren.

The Workers' Solidarity Clinic, as it is known, has provided free care to hundreds of patients. The effort, which has received support from a number of U.S. unions and other charities, is a unique collaboration among the Haitian union, Public Services International, the AFL-CIO and its Solidarity Center, the Can-Do Foundation, and the AFT and its affiliates in Vermont.

"This might seem like a very small project in the grand scheme," Johnson said at the meeting in Little Haiti, "but this is a country that was so torn apart and devastated, and it remains a place where healthcare services are relatively scarce, much less free. We're pretty proud of what we've been able to accomplish to improve the lives of our union brothers and sisters, families and children in Haiti."

At the clinic, Johnson had a chance to tour the facility and talk with doctors and nurses as well as local union leaders. The leaders told Johnson about their vision to expand the clinic, including establishing a lab to do blood work and offering vision and dental care. Some spoke of their desire to eventually turn the clinic into a larger, full-service hospital.

Politics was another focus of Johnson's trip, which included a stop to do some phone banking and thank volunteers at the Central Labor Council in Miami. "One of the hardest jobs in an election campaign is phone banking," she said. "I've done it for years, and I know what it's like. But let me tell you something, it works."

Phone banking—along with other direct contact with members—works because it's a way to tell fellow union members and their families about the key issues, let them know which candidates are on our side, and point out important contrasts between the candidates, she said. "We can't take anything for granted. We can't afford to have anyone sit this one out," she added.

Johnson made some of the same points with the union and community leaders in Little Haiti. Everywhere we turn, she said, unions, public schools, teachers and school staff are under attack, often from lawmakers who have never spent any time in the classroom.

"It's not only our job to be great educators to children," she said, "but it is also our job to educate lawmakers and others to let them know how important our work is and that we help make a difference every single day so that our kids can become successful, productive members of our communities."

That fight for good schools extends to our work with community allies. "Collective action—community-driven reform and solutions, rather than top-down dictates—is what will make great schools," Johnson said. "So we have to work with parents, school leaders, community groups, businesses and other local leaders who share our goal of making every school a great school. Our fight for great schools should be everyone's fight. We can't do it alone." [Dan Gursky, Tish Olshefski, Eric Duncan/bottom photo by Allison Diaz]