It’s time for new leaders to pick up the fight where she’s leaving off, retiring Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson told AFT members and delegates during the Tuesday afternoon convention session. She said it “feels good” to know there are great leaders who will continue to advance the values of “this union that I love.”
A fitting capstone to her more than five decades as a labor activist and leader, Johnson was presented with the Bayard Rustin Award to honor her years in the struggle for human rights for people around the country and abroad. In her final address as a union officer to convention delegates, Johnson said, “I am so humbled to receive the Bayard Rustin Award, which bears the name of a man I admired so greatly.”
Johnson recalled meeting Rustin and A. Philip Randolph—two great African American labor and civil rights leaders—who both played pivotal roles in organizing the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. She said, “They were giants in the fight for racial and economic justice, and I had the honor to know them both.
“Most importantly, I had the opportunity to learn from them,” said Johnson. “Whenever I had a chance to be in their presence and listen to the stories about their journeys for justice, I had the sense of sitting at the feet of the elders.”
She also honored the life and legacy of the late Rep. John Lewis, praising him as a “stalwart ally” who fought to create a more just America where all lives are valued and worthy of dignity. Having met the congressman when he was a student leader, Johnson remembered Lewis as the youngest and last surviving civil rights leader who spoke at the March on Washington 57 years ago.
“Whether marching in Alabama or legislating in the halls of Congress, John Lewis faithfully fought to make what he always called the ‘beloved community’ in America a reality,” Johnson said. We can best honor Lewis’ life, she said, by “fighting for what’s right, and voting, and mobilizing everyone we know to vote.”
Reflecting on her 54 years as a union activist and leader, Johnson told delegates about how she started out as a teacher’s aide in Baltimore City public schools in 1966 earning only $2.25 an hour with no benefits. That was her motivation to get involved and organize paraprofessionals.
“I believed the work of paraprofessionals needed to be valued and uplifted,” she said. “I believed that we must be recognized as important members of the education team who deserve to be paid fairly and treated with dignity and respect.”
Her organizing efforts paid off in 1968, when the Baltimore Teachers Union became one of the first AFT locals to represent paraprofessionals. Over the next 35 years, Johnson served as president of the BTU, building the union into a powerful voice in Baltimore and around Maryland. Her tenure also included 17 years where she led both the BTU and the state affiliate, AFT-Maryland.
In the early 1990s, Johnson started building a reputation as a strong national union leader when she was elected to serve as an AFT vice president—a position that she believes has helped to boost the role of paraprofessionals and school-related personnel in the union.
“There was a time when some folks didn’t think paraprofessionals and support employees could be leaders,” Johnson recalled. “I remember being told that I was ‘an exception.’ The truth is I am not an exception. I am an example of what people can achieve when they are given a fair opportunity.”
AFT President Randi Weingarten said: “Very few people leave behind a legacy quite like my friend, colleague and sister Dr. Lorretta Johnson. While there can be no doubt that she has earned her retirement many times over, Lorretta’s departure leaves a hole in my heart and in the heart of our movement. She is a powerhouse in every sense of the word.”
During Johnson’s five decades as a trade unionist, she has been a force in the fight for economic and racial justice—around the country and abroad, and her contributions extend beyond the AFT. She is a vice president of the AFL-CIO; she serves on the boards of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department and the Union Label and Services Trades Department, and as treasurer of the AFL-CIO Department of Professional Employees; she is vice president of the Metropolitan Baltimore Council AFL-CIO and treasurer of the Municipal Employees Credit Union; and she serves on the boards of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, the BlueGreen Alliance, Citizens for Tax Justice, Child Labor Coalition and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
Johnson has earned numerous honors over the years, but her highest honor always has been the loving relationships she shares with family, which includes her late husband, Leonard, and her three sons, eight grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
She told convention delegates, “I’ve done what I set out to do, and I know there are PSRPs who will pick up where I left off and keep right on leading.
“I am confident that whoever comes behind me is prepared to move forward and advance the values of the AFT—this union that I love,” she said. “This isn’t a goodbye, but farewell for now.”
Watch Johnson’s farewell address on YouTube.
[Angela Callahan/Photos courtesy of the Office of the Secretary-Treasurer]