Public employees mobilize to fight for strong communities

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When the union unites with the community and engages its members in building a better future, that can make for a powerful force for change. This was the message AFT President Randi Weingarten (pictured below with AFT Public Employees leader Jill Cohenour) brought to the more than 200 AFT public employees who gathering in Denver in late May for the union's national conference.

Weingarten and Jill CohenourWeingarten's keynote remarks addressed the conference theme of "Reclaiming the Promise of Quality Public Services for Strong Communities." At a time when powerful, well-funded forces are striving to silence workers' voices, eliminate bargaining rights and promote harmful austerity policies, it's more important than ever that we fight together to restore the middle class in this country. That means working for fair wages, great neighborhood schools, affordable higher education, accessible healthcare, retirement security, safe communities and more. "And it means that our communities get first-rate public services that keep them safe, healthy and vibrant," she said—"services that are provided by the public, not privatized."

"Our opponents have made it clear that power never yields willingly," she added. "This fight will be long and hard, but it's also a fight we don't intend to lose."

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper welcomed the attendees to Colorado. Many of them participated in leafletting around the city—despite a hailstorm— to support the efforts of Colorado WINS, one of the host locals, to promote respect in the workplace and a living wage for the state's public employees. (See photo below.)

Luncheon speaker David Cay Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, spoke about how bad tax policies in our country are a cause of increasing inequality and underfunded public services.

Canvassing for Colorado WINSThe closing session included a presentation on the work of the AFT's racial equity task force, which will hold its first official meeting this month in Baltimore. (Because the AFT represents many people who work in public safety and law enforcement, a special meeting was held with them during the conference because of their unique perspective on issues of racial equity and public safety.) In addition, AFT organizing director Phil Kugler and Jennifer Kaseman, assistant to the president, talked about the union's plans to focus intensely on engaging members as part of our effort to fight back bad legislation in the states and bad decisions coming from the courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court.

AFT Public Employees also used the conference to get more responses to two ongoing surveys: one on work-life balance and another on professionalism. Both are still open for submissions.

Conference attendees had a chance to thank Steve Porter, the long-time director of the AFT Public Employees department, and Karen Schiffhauer, the department's administrative assistant, for their service. Both are retiring this year, with almost 60 years of combined service.

[Dan Gursky, Jennifer Porcari]