Telephone town hall shows deep commitment to the HEROES Act

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On May 26, AFT members joined together for their 11th in a series of telephone town halls, this time to hear from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi about the status of the HEROES Act, a $3 trillion bill that will ensure states, cities, towns, public schools and public colleges receive the federal aid they need to recover from the catastrophic damage the pandemic has caused by shutting down their economies. The gathering also featured New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, who discussed the bill’s implications for states, and AFT local leaders shared what their members are doing to ensure that the HEROES Act passes.

Nancy Pelosi at an AFT event in 2018

AFT President Randi Weingarten told the nearly 30,000 participants in the town hall that the national union and local affiliates will do everything they can to push for the HEROES Act’s passage in the Senate, where it currently awaits action. The health and safety of Americans, their access to public education, and their very jobs are at stake in this crisis. “We are engaging like never before,” Weingarten said. “We have to be all in. It can’t just be the leaders. The House is with us. We need to pressure the Senate to pass their bill.”

Funding to help safely reopen schools, protect frontline workers

The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act, which Pelosi spearheaded in the House of Representatives, offers much-needed funding to school districts, public colleges and universities, and state and local governments. The bill would provide at least $100 billion for public K-12 schools, colleges and universities to reopen safely and would account for the unanticipated increased costs of operating schools in a COVID-19 environment. It would provide $500 billion for state aid and $350 billion for local aid to fund the public services and frontline workers essential to fighting this pandemic. And it would provide $175 billion to ensure the health and safety of frontline workers and all Americans through widespread testing, contact tracing and adequate personal protective equipment. The HEROES Act also includes relief for affected families, and an expansion of Medicaid so that vulnerable populations receive the healthcare needed to stop the virus from spreading.  

We all must mobilize to ensure the Senate invests in the critical services our communities need. The AFT has put together a four-week campaign to urge the Senate to act on this bill, which would preserve the jobs of AFT members and put in place the necessary services to keep our students, our school staff and our families healthy. The campaign website features a toolkit with fact sheets and social media graphics to help local leaders engage members and spread our message: “Don’t forfeit our future.”                                                                                                                               

During the town hall, Pelosi and Murphy assured AFT members they are working around the clock to advocate for the bill, trying to convince their Republican colleagues that America desperately needs this funding. Pelosi urged AFT members to support these efforts by calling their senators to ask them to pass the HEROES Act, and by encouraging family and friends in states with GOP senators to call and make their voices heard too. “Tell your stories,” she said. “Keep the drum beat going. Nothing is more eloquent than your stories. Know your power.”

AFT members tell the story

Pelosi was clearly moved by the stories that local leaders shared during the town hall, including the sobering fact that 68 members of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers have died from COVID-19. UFT President Michael Mulgrew shared how the dedication of those lives lost has inspired members and supporters; the union recently added 9,000 member activists and garnered 400,000 parent and teacher signatures for a New York City petition to reopen schools but to do it safely.

“We will take on the responsibility of educating children,” Mulgrew said, but the senators need to be responsible to educators and to America’s students. “You can’t leave the future of our children in jeopardy because you play politics with peoples’ lives.” Teachers, he explained, will take their passion from the classroom and use it to push for the funding Americans need. Remarking on the most recalcitrant senators, he said, “It’s time for them to go back to school, and they’re going to learn their lesson.”

Participants also heard from Rick Lucas, a rapid-response nurse and the president of the 4,000-member Ohio State University Nurses Organization. Lucas works at the Ohio State University Medical Center, where he and his colleagues care for the majority of coronavirus patients in Central Ohio. Since April more than 80 healthcare workers there tested positive for the virus, and Lucas’ union has filed an Occupational Safety and Health Administration complaint accusing the hospital of endangering the health and safety of medical workers during the pandemic. Although one of Ohio’s senators, Sherrod Brown, supports the HEROES Act, Lucas said, the other, Rob Portman, needs more encouragement.

Stepping up to fill the gap, fight for funding

Fred Kowal, president of United University Professions, which represents State University of New York faculty and is the largest higher education union in the nation, said his union’s members include 15,000 hospital workers at teaching hospitals. “The only way our members could get PPE was with the union buying them,” he said, referencing the 100,000 medical gowns plus masks and gloves UUP purchased; that affiliate also helped distribute the AFT’s spring purchase of 500,000 N95 masks, 50,000 face shields and 1,000,000 surgical masks for frontline workers. For the last two months, the UUP has been writing letters to Congress demanding federal action to keep workers safe, educate our students and build our future. “Together, we stand with you Madam Speaker,” Kowal told Pelosi. “We’re going to get this done.”

University Professionals of Illinois President John Miller described how his union is fighting back: UPI sent a detailed letter to the Illinois congressional delegations demanding increases in stabilization funding and Pell Grants, as well as greater assistance in access to technology, among other pressing needs. Because the letter was so compelling, more than 53 organizations asked to sign on. UPI also held a press conference where “five very scared but brave students” shared their concerns about whether they will be able to return to college in the fall and even earn their degree.

Zeph Capo, president of Texas AFT and the Houston Federation of Teachers, talked about how his union wasn’t able to recover until 2019 from the “eight-year long draconian cuts” made due to the Great Recession. Then the virus struck, threatening to derail education for a generation of students. “We’re not going to let that happen,” he said. The union has reached out to Sen. John Cornyn’s office and has planned a virtual town hall in Houston to show him why the HEROES Act is vital to his constituents, Capo said. And Texas AFT and the HFT will continue to push out letters in support of this bill. 

“The HEROES Act does exactly what we need right now,” New Jersey’s governor told participants in the town hall. “It’s direct cash assistance to states, municipalities.” Last Friday Murphy announced that New Jersey’s budget will run until Sept. 30. “We are either cutting or deferring, in the absence of federal cash assistance, well over $5 billion of expenses in just four months,” he said. “Multiply that by three for a full fiscal year. The stakes are not abstract.”

Murphy said he’s been “burning up the wires on both sides of the aisle,” reaching out to governors to shore up support for this bill in the Senate. He said he’s had good conversations with both Democrats—like Steve Bullock of Montana and Andy Beshear of Kentucky—and Republicans—like Mike DeWine of Ohio and Larry Hogan of Maryland. “Just as you are, we’re going to every corner of our country regardless of political party to make the case that this support is desperately needed.” 

In concluding the town hall, Weingarten reiterated the union’s support for the HEROES Act and emphasized that frontline workers are not alone. “I really wanted to make sure our members on this call saw we have friends and allies who want to help get this done.”   

[Jennifer Dubin]