Four powerful labor leaders on one stage. That was the treat for AFT activists on Saturday morning. Together with AFT President Randi Weingarten, AFSCME President Lee Saunders, NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia and SEIU President Mary Kay Henry provided fiery inspiration for activists to keep caring, fighting and showing up for workers everywhere.
“Let’s celebrate the moments like these,” Weingarten said, “when we come together—when we can support each other, learn from each other, comfort and encourage each other, give each other strength, inspire each other. What binds us together is more important than what divides us.”
Like Weingarten, Eskelsen Garcia is a fierce warrior for public education. The AFT and the National Education Association have been in many battles together, from teacher evaluations to gun violence and student debt.
Before picking up her guitar and singing the classic “Union Maid,” Eskelsen Garcia quoted a line from a “Star Wars” movie that aptly describes how she deals with union haters: “You don’t win by destroying what you hate. You win by saving what you love.”
At the Service Employees International Union, Henry builds unions for the future. Early in her career, she tackled nursing homes, places we put our loved ones expecting exceptional care, places that often have had a dark underside, with workers making poverty wages, laboring in unsafe conditions while owners syphon off public funds to enrich themselves. After leading organizing drives and winning national agreements, that industry is better because of Mary Kay Henry.
On top of these timeless labor challenges, however, we’re now fighting a concerted, single-minded attack on unions like never before, Henry said. “Corporations, and the politicians they pay for, attack unions and make it harder for workers to join together. They attack public education, pensions and healthcare,” she said. But it is unions that give people the ability to join together and turn a dangerous job into a good, sustainable middle-class job. “We honor the work of public service workers. We’ve made the decision that we’re going to stick together no matter what.”
This year, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees marked the 50th anniversary of the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike that brought Martin Luther King Jr. to that city. The night before he was assassinated, King gave his powerful “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” sermon in which he knit together the struggle for workers’ rights and civil rights. As AFSCME’s president, Lee Saunders recognized that 2018 could not go by without recognition of those events, and that we could find the energy and hope to take on today’s struggles. He understands that unions must be about both economic justice and social justice.
“Randi, I can’t thank you enough for your leadership, for your friendship, for your partnership seven days a week,” Saunders said, adding a shoutout to AFT Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson and AFT Executive Vice President Mary Cathryn Ricker. “I bring greetings today from the proud men and women of AFSCME, many of whom work side by side with you in communities nationwide. Our four unions enjoy indestructible bonds of solidarity.”
Working people are mobilizing, Saunders noted, saying he couldn’t promise that our fight would be easy. The attacks on us will become more ferocious. But he also observed that we didn’t get where we are by being timid.
“We’ll keep rising up,” he said, bringing the crowd to its feet. “I want you to rise up with me right now. Rise up for human dignity. Rise up for social justice. Rise up to defend our freedoms and our values. Sisters and brothers, it’s time for all of us to rise up.”
[Annette Licitra; photo by Michael Campbell]