Pellegrino to AFT members: Run for office

New York State Assemblywoman Christine Pellegrino is riding the wave as union members set out to run for political office. A grass-roots activist, an elementary school reading teacher, a leader of her state’s opt-out movement, a delegate for Sen. Bernie Sanders, and an advocate for public education and unionism, her campaign for state delegate benefited from enthusiastic union backing. With the community behind her, too, she took on a tough campaign in a Republican stronghold and won.

Pellegrino addressed AFT delegates Monday morning, noting how rare it is in the state Capitol to have been a public worker, a teacher, now holding public office. “With a coalition of unions and activists, we didn’t just win the election: We flipped that district and won by 40 points,” she said. “You could say I’m a unicorn in public office.”

She spoke of learning from her father, who taught in Farmingdale on Long Island, an area she now represents. Pellegrino remembers him going out on strike, packing a brown paper bag for lunch, wearing boots instead of dress shoes, jeans instead of slacks, and going out to walk the picket line with other teachers. Being on strike, she said, is about making sacrifices for the greater good. Her father walked with the AFT’s famous leader, the late Albert Shanker; and because of the commitment and tenacity of union members, they won their contract.

“So here we are, many decades later, still struggling to fully fund public education,” she said. It’s important “that children have what they need to learn in clean, safe and comfortable classrooms, and that teachers are paid a decent wage.”

In West Virginia, state Sen. Lynne Arvon was overheard saying, “The teachers have to understand that West Virginia is a red state and the ‘free handouts’ are over.”

All due respect to Sen. Arvon, Pellegrino quipped, but paying an honest day’s wage for an honest day’s work is what this country is all about. We won’t accept this no-win scenario. Teachers are walking out, striking, in Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma and West Virginia.

Pellegrino believes the Janus case will in time make it clear that we will not allow a court decision to pull our union apart.

“When we organize, we win,” she said. “Facts. Emails. Visit a lot. Make a shoe sacrifice, like I did. Wear your shoes down by door-knocking. Because doors win wars!”

More than 300 AFT members are running for office in this campaign season. Our activists are running and winning elections at record numbers. Pellegrino urged AFT members to take inspiration from her story. Public employees elected to school boards, state assemblies and Congress will change this country for the better.

“I know Republicans want their seat back, but I’m not going anywhere,” she told convention attendees. “Because when we organize, we win. We will have hundreds of members elected to office all over the country to show for it—for our kids, for our communities, for public education, for all of us, for good.”

[Annette Licitra]