An impressive panel of speakers came together on July 20 morning to bring to life the AFT's amazing first century.
Nat LaCour, the AFT's former executive vice president and secretary-treasurer as well as longtime United Teachers of New Orleans president, spoke about the challenges of unionizing teachers in the Deep South in the 1960s and 1970s. LaCour recalled that when he began his teaching career in 1960, he took home just $270 per month after taxes, with almost no benefits. Working conditions were far from ideal.
He was elected UTNO president in 1971, and eventually, after a series of strikes, organizing efforts and political action, the union in 1978 became the first in the South to win collective bargaining rights.
Jennie Shanker, who was born the same day in 1964 that her father Albert was first nominated to run for president of the United Federation of Teachers, talked about how appropriate the union's theme of "generation to generation" is to her and her family. She said that in addition to following in her father's footsteps as a union activist, as an adjunct faculty member at Temple University she deals with some of the same difficult working conditions that drove her father to become involved.
"I feel his presence and I feel his loss, as I think about this landmark anniversary and the work you are all doing. I honor each of you, and your families, and the people who came before you."
Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation, who wrote a noted biography of Al Shanker, said the AFT is a unique institution in American democracy. "Only the AFT stands directly at the intersection of the two most important sources of equality—public education and the trade union movement." Unlike some other teacher leaders of his day, Shanker realized that his members needed to be part of the broader labor movement to push for better wages, healthcare and housing, all of which make it easier for children to learn in schools. "That commitment to having an energetic, unified voice" has continued with all the AFT presidents since Shanker, Kahlenberg added.
Francine Lawrence, the longtime president of the Toledo (Ohio) Federation of Teachers and the AFT's former executive vice president, talked proudly of the Toledo local's peer assistance and review plan, which started under her husband Dal, who preceded her as the local president. The program "opened the door for more collaboration and innovation through collective bargaining," she said. "Toledo is just one example where the AFT has used collective bargaining to transform the system in which we work so that we have a real voice in our profession, are respected and maybe a little bit feared."
Ninety-eight-year-old Beatrice Lumpkin has learned many lessons from spending 83 years in labor and community organizing, but she summed them up with three words: peace, unity and struggle. "Our children need peace, home and abroad," she said, calling for an end to violence and wars. "How can we say that all lives matter, unless we make sure that black lives matter?"
Lumpkin, who was still in high school when she fought to save the nation's safety net of unemployment and Social Security, encouraged the audience not to be afraid to stand up for what is right. That battle continues today: "They're trying to take away our safety net—trying to raise the Social Security age and take away our right to organize. But we're not going to let them take those things away."
In her early years with the AFT, Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson took her first trip out of the United States when she and Al Shanker visited Germany, Brussels and France with other union members. "It was the first of many trips that I would take that helped me learn from my labor brothers and sisters around the world."
Shanker's firm belief in the power of unions to promote freedom and democracy around the world led him to form the AFT's international affairs department in 1981 to support international programs from union development training to democracy promotion to AIDS prevention. "While some people talk about those things, Al worked to make them reality, and we're proud to carry on his legacy in that work today," Johnson said.
Former AFT President Edward McElroy said there are a lot of organizations representing teachers but none with a connection to the labor movement, and that's the difference between them and the AFT. He noted that the move to gain collective bargaining happened in places where there were strong unions. "It was the trade union that went into the legislatures and said these people deserve the right to be represented. And it was the AFT, as part of those trade unions, that pushed for collective bargaining."
He acknowledged the challenge that union activists have in taking on many different roles. "I was a teacher, a building rep and a local union officer," McElroy said. "I think about what kind of world it would be if there weren't people like you doing this important work, and I want you to congratulate yourself for doing it."
[Dan Gursky, Adrienne Coles/photo by Michael Campbell]