AFT president Edward J. McElroy delivered his final address as AFT president during the opening convention session on Friday, July 11, marking his retirement and the end of his 16-year tenure as an AFT national officer. He promised delegates, however, that he would continue to put his energy into the battles that lay ahead for the AFT and the labor movement.
In a speech interrupted frequently by applause, McElroy said that, in many ways, the Chicago convention unites the AFT's past, present and future. "We are returning to our birthplace of Chicago. We are celebrating our many successes and impressive strength. And we will elect the leaders who will help usher in the next period of growth and accomplishments for our union."
The AFT president reflected both on the union's recent successes and on the challenges that lie ahead. The AFT, he noted, has grown by more than 108,000 in the two years since the last convention. "Our growth and potential growth span every division of the AFT, and add to the AFT's presence clear across the country-from the Lower East Side to the Pacific Northwest."
He also cited the effectiveness of the national union's political action program, particularly its e-Activist program, through which members have sent more than 100,000 letters to legislators on crucial issues, and the Activists for Congressional Education program. "Every AFT member-every single one of you-contributes to the success of our union. And when you join forces with your fellow members, the impact truly is greater than one," McElroy said, referring to a key theme of this convention.
He credited this kind of member activism with "fending off the reauthorization of what would have been a completely unacceptable version of the No Child Left Behind Act."
The AFT has spearheaded many reforms in education throughout its history, McElroy said. "We will work with the next president and the new Congress to create a new law-a law that respects the knowledge of classroom professionals and helps teachers and paraprofessionals provide our students with the high-quality education they deserve."
Pointing to the loss of membership and benefits that many private sector unions have been experiencing, McElroy told delegates that the AFT and its affiliates also must be "active participants and leaders in the larger labor movement."
"Rather than getting pulled into the trend of diminishing benefits, we must do what we can to ensure that more public and private sector employees have collective bargaining so they can secure a voice on the job, decent wages and good benefits."
While there is much to be proud of, much more remains to be done, McElroy said, "starting with replacing the current occupant of the White House with a president who will lead our country into a new era of progress and opportunity."
It's important that the union help "elect a president who will partner with this new Congress to promote an agenda that works for our members, their families and the communities they live in," he said.
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, whose endorsement has been recommended by the AFT executive council, is that candidate, McElroy said. "Barack Obama shares our commitment to making sure children have what they need-in and out of school. ... [He] shares our belief that access to high-quality healthcare is a right for all, not a privilege for the few. Barack Obama believes, as we do, that we can and must defend our country at the same time we protect civil and human rights."
The AFT is "a political powerhouse" that can help Obama win, he said. "But our power comes from you, your colleagues, your friends and your family members. You don't want to wake up on Nov. 5 and think you didn't do everything you could to help elect Sen. Obama-especially since we've had victory snatched away from us before."
McElroy closed by saying that, while he was not planning to say goodbye to the AFT or the labor movement, he does want to say goodbye "to the governors, legislators, employers and labor commissioners who throw obstacles in the way of union organizing" and "to policies and politicians who make it possible for CEOs to reap enormous profits for themselves, but who leave their workers' pensions unprotected."
"We have much unfinished business to attend to, and we must attend to it together. You will have new leadership, but they will be my leaders, too, since I will be a foot soldier with you in the work before us."
Earlier, delegates were greeted by presiding convention chair Marilyn Stewart, president of the Chicago Teachers Union and an AFT vice president, who noted that AFT members need support from employers, elected officials, their communities and one another to accomplish their work and serve others. Ed Geppert, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers and convention co-chair, also greeted delegates, noting that with the November elections on the horizon, this is "an exciting and crucial time for the union" as it is poised to make positive changes for our members.
July 12, 2008