07/12/2019

Many AFT voices join to become one union voice

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Throughout the TEACH conference, members took the stage to tell their stories of solidarity and accomplishment through the union. One by one, they recounted stories of empowerment to the benefit of their students, schools and communities.

Thomas Frank Jr., a music teacher at Gamble Montessori High School in Ohio and vice president of organizing for the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, has always been passionate about public service. Even in his first year as a union member, Frank could see that proposed state legislation against collective bargaining would force him to stand up for workers’ rights. “That little spark of activism within me,” he said, “became a burning fire.” 

Thomas Frank

Frank leads members in opposing anti-union lawsuits, which has spearheaded membership growth—exactly the opposite of what our foes wanted. At the same time, members worked to keep charter school expansion out of Cincinnati, and to pass school tax levies nearly every year for eight years. 

Frank continues to lobby for better public education. The AFT’s Teacher Leaders Program, in which members take on public service projects, taught him how to build power and motivate teachers to advocate for their schools.

For Rosa Soto-Thomas, president of the St. Croix Federation of Teachers, the words of AFT President Randi Weingarten resonate deeply: “We care. We fight. We show up.” In the U.S. Virgin Islands, Soto-Thomas said, “We certainly do a whole lot of caring, fighting and showing up.”

Rosa Soto-Thomas

Eight years ago, her governor won re-election on the promise of giving educators a raise. Yet, shortly after his re-election, she said, they took an 8 percent cut instead. Six years passed without a raise, but educators showed up, lobbying lawmakers, demonstrating and winning public support. The next governor did little until he was up for re-election. To spontaneous applause, Soto-Thomas reported how that time around, educators got their raises—and then they voted him out.

In 2017, Hurricane Maria wrecked 13 schools on St. Croix. Not to be deterred, the community engaged in cleanups. With the AFT’s help, members received emergency kits and students received wraparound services. Soto-Thomas thanked AFT volunteers who went there to help. Of the future, she said: “We will continue to fight.”

Stephanie Byrd, a prekindergarten inclusion teacher and Boston Teachers Union member, felt unprepared as a novice five years ago to navigate the roles she was expected to play. There were not enough resources, mentoring or preparation. She felt she lacked a voice.

Stephanie Byrd

Then last year, Byrd was asked to join a focus group that included new teachers, researchers, leaders and staff. “That experience inspired me to become more involved as an educator,” she said, “and to exercise my voice.”

This year, Byrd declared from the stage, “We have more new teachers at TEACH than ever before.” She asked them, as future leaders of the AFT, to stand, and they were given a huge ovation.

Bob Cannatelli has been a flight attendant for 30 years and is a member of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. A lifelong unionist, Cannatelli said he lost his union and contract when his airline, Northwest, merged with Delta. “It’s time to restore that legacy, get back all we lost, and create a new legacy,” he said. “We are the most productive workers. However, we are among the lowest compensated. It’s time to unionize.”

Bob Cannatelli

Delta knows how hard it is, he said, to get half of its 25,000 flight attendants to sign union cards and trigger an election. They make it more difficult with constant interference and intimidation, spending millions on anti-union law firms and propaganda. In the Detroit airport, he said, the terminal is about 2.7 million square feet, but the union is allowed only an out-of-the-way corner to organize in. Still, he said, “We are going to win. One day you will be teaching this in your classrooms, and describing how the AFT helped.” 

Cannatelli asked TEACH attendees, who were handed union authorization cards when they entered the hall, to write words of encouragement on a card and give it to a flight attendant the next time they fly Delta. “We can’t do it alone,” he said. “Because when you fight, you fight for all of us.”

[Annette Licitra/Mike Campbell photos]