Together again, honoring the work of public employees

For the first time since 2017, members of AFT Public Employees came together for a professional issues conference Oct. 8-10 in New York City. It was the AFT’s first in-person meeting since the start of the pandemic, and it drew all three of our national officers to honor and learn from members who had never stopped doing essential work.

Participants at Public Employee conference

Members returned over and over to the conference theme, “Together We Thrive: Strengthening Our Communities Through Public Service,” as a touchstone for how they had adapted an extraordinary array of jobs to meet the demands of the pandemic, including keeping prisoners and psychiatric patients safe; conducting statewide COVID-19 testing and tracing; safeguarding our natural resources; and keeping clean water flowing.

Nurses and health techs who work in state hospitals described harrowing conditions, especially early in the pandemic when little was known about the deadly new virus and no vaccines yet existed. They recounted how they stood together as a union demanding adequate staffing and adherence to science. And they recalled how the AFT itself procured millions of pieces of personal protective equipment to keep our members safe.

Wayne Spence, president of the New York State Public Employees Federation, discovered from a show of hands that most members at the conference were visiting New York for the first time. “Welcome to the Big Apple,” he said. “We went through a lot as a city, and we are grateful that we are back, and that we are here, in person. I can’t tell you how much it means to me.”

“This hotel is a union hotel, and they just reopened three days ago,” Montana state senator and state chemist Jill Cohenour said in welcoming the crowd. “We are the first group, and we are excited to be back together.”

‘To nurture and lift’

After a moment of silence for every worker lost to the pandemic, Cohenour introduced AFT President Randi Weingarten, who received a standing ovation. Weingarten has visited dozens of affiliates over the past two months, including the workplace of a Florida member and daughter who both died of COVID-19 because they refused the vaccine.

Randi and panel at Public Employee conference

“We didn’t go in to shame them. There are a lot of people who are really scared,” Weingarten said, pointing not only to misinformation from conspiracy theorists and white supremacists but also to disinformation from Russia and China. “It’s important to nurture and lift all,” she said, “because that’s what’s important for us as a union.”

In addition to thanking our members—the orderlies, mental health professionals, corrections officers and many others—Weingarten thanked our leaders.

She announced the retirement this coming February of AFT Public Employees Director Christianne Runge-Chacko, who started her career as a public employee in North Dakota and has worked for the AFT 16 years in a wide variety of roles, “all of which she did exceptionally well,” Weingarten said. “Everything she does, she does with the sense of ‘How do we make it better for people?’ So, Chris, I just want to say thank you, and we love you.”

Weingarten next acknowledged the exhaustion of members due to the seemingly never-ending pandemic, plus political polarization and division. As an antidote, she offered the story of Colorado WINS (Colorado Workers for Innovative and New Solutions). If you remember anything from this conference, she told attendees, it should be about the necessity of holding two conflicting thoughts at the same time.

The fight for working people is tiring, she said. Union organizing is tiring. But the AFT and our partners had been trying to win collective bargaining in Colorado for 35 years, since the 1980s. Last year, we won.

And then just two weeks ago, Colorado WINS secured its first contract: Double-digit increases in pay, diversity in hiring, a task force to track progress and hold the state accountable, along with dozens of other provisions on both compensation and working conditions.

“That’s what gives me hope,” Weingarten said. “Colorado WINS made it happen.” The victories in Colorado reflect the fact that 68 percent of Americans and 75 percent of young people understand that unions are important, she said—that they are “vehicles for a decent life, decent pay and a voice at work. Making sure there’s safety on the job. Making sure there’s a vaccine mandate. People want their families to thrive.”

The last thing Weingarten highlighted was that working people have never had an administration as pro-labor as the Biden administration. Exhibit A is that President Biden will finally make the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness program work as intended. Exhibit B is a package of long-overdue legislation: a bipartisan infrastructure bill to rebuild and repair roads, bridges and public transit, and a “human infrastructure” bill—the Build Back Better Act—that would start to bring child care, healthcare, higher education and many more public services up to world standards. “If we get it wrong, if it doesn’t happen, we don’t get a do-over,” she said, and urged members to advocate for both bills.

Weingarten then led a panel discussion about leadership. AFT Connecticut President Jan Hochadel talked about how her union of 39,000 members was able to bargain a vaccine mandate for state public employees. PEF President Spence described the horror of New York City becoming ground zero at the outset of the pandemic in America. “It was emotional,” he said, “but we got it done.”

Disrupting tax dodgers

The next day, Steve Porter, former director of AFT Public Employees and now a regional official for Public Services International, laid out three burning issues for our country that also are burning issues worldwide: On COVID-19, he said, there must be universal access to vaccines through a loosening of patents. On tax havens, he said, it makes sense for us to be involved in finding ways to unlock the $500 billion owed for public services. Other global issues, he said, include climate justice, social reorganization of care, and the use of data in the workplace.

“Just as it makes sense to unite in the workplace, it makes sense for us to be part of a global organization that has impact on public employees,” Porter said.

PSI General Secretary Rosa Pavanelli visited by video, diving into the global effects of COVID-19, the lures of austerity and privatization, and the urgency for countries to continue supporting families, workers and the economy. A 21 percent minimum tax on corporations would be a step in the right direction, Pavanelli said, pointing out that the richest tax havens are not on small islands but in America and Europe. The world needs policies that support quality of life, she said: health and education for all. “This is the moment to fight for a deep change in the global economy.”

Conference attendees welcomed international visitors from two countries: Marjolaine Perreault and Luc Allaire from the Centrale des syndicats du Québec in Canada, and Gilbert Potts of the Community and Public Services Union in Australia.

Perreault described terrible cutbacks to public services in Canada, especially public health. More than 5,000 people living in residential and long-term care centers died last year in Quebec alone, she said. And this year, the government tried to divide workers by offering more compensation to teachers and nurses while providing less to support staff. Unions are demanding pay equality, she said, and will stand shoulder to shoulder with AFT members.

AFT Secretary-Treasurer Fedrick Ingram addressed the crowd next, beginning with his father’s dedication to family and community through his work as a bus driver.

“That man is a hero in my life,” Ingram said. “It was public service that allowed us to eat every day. I watched my dad sleep in the bus depot to get overtime. I watched my dad develop carpal tunnel syndrome by using a steering wheel that was bigger than he was. That’s what public service means to me.”

Ingram said there’s no script for what lies ahead: We’ll have fights with governors, there will be more natural disasters, and unfortunately, more cracks along the fault lines in our electorate. But we can hold true to our values, he said. That’s why we belong to a powerful union. There is value in sticking together. Getting children back to school and child care safely has everything to do with putting our members back to work and keeping our economy strong. That, and equal opportunity for all, builds thriving communities, he said to applause.

No one knows better than public employees how much we need President Biden’s two infrastructure bills, Ingram said. Transportation systems of bridges, highways, public transit and tunnels, waterworks and parklands are the very places where many of our members do their jobs. The legislation also would strengthen Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act, as well as provide for child care, which would by some estimates free a million parents to re-enter the workforce.

The role of public employees

“Maybe the best way to express the idea I’m trying to put over here would be to describe how you, how the nation’s public employees, embody American values,” Ingram said. “I want you to leave here understanding your critical role in American life, in American democracy. Public service embodies the laws that govern us. Public employees make those concepts real. We keep each other safe. We make each other smarter. We believe that everyone is equal and that everyone should have a voice and a vote. Those are the real American values, and they also are union values.”

Participants at Public Employee conference

Ingram ended by calling for members to stand up and share their stories, which they did. Then they broke into workshops that covered a range of topics from union organizing to social and climate justice, and from building digital skills to preparing for the next pandemic.

Over lunch, participants heard from U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), a former PEF member who has worked in the public sector his entire career. He noted that public employees are all essential workers and expressed delight in joining them as the pandemic eases. He praised AFT members’ commitment to keeping communities operating safely. “So many of you were in high-risk situations,” he said, “but you did your job and you did it well.”

He also said it “is so good to finally hear a president of the United States say, “union labor, union labor.’” As unions grow, Tonko said, so does our economy: Unions help America understand that we can only move forward together.

Tonko grew up in a small town where half the residents were mill workers, the other half farmers. Neighbors were there for each other, he said: “We need to have that spirit of community again if we’re going to have a functioning democracy.”

It’s a big moment for all of us, Tonko said, then asked: Will we rise to the occasion? He quickly answered: If Congress can do what’s right and pass the president’s groundbreaking legislation. “One bill without the other is insufficient.”

On Sunday, members learned about an AFT affiliate’s new Fund Our Future campaign, a coalition of union and community leaders committed to reshaping government in the public interest. PEF Vice President Randi DiAntonio walked members through the goals: to obtain a robust public health system, including mental health care for all; a public safety program that keeps everyone safe; public oversight of public projects; a restoration of public services; and a strong social safety net.

Members also took part in story circles, a tool used to build community through dialog and sharing.

To cap off the conference, members welcomed AFT Executive Vice President Evelyn DeJesus, who shared her own story of COVID-19 and recovery.

Public employees, DeJesus said, are the essence of our union’s slogan: We Care. We Fight. We Show Up. “You cared, you fought, and you definitely showed up!” she said.

“Here’s what we know,” she added. “The old normal, back in early 2020, was pretty terrible.” Tax cuts had starved public services and too many of our public facilities were a disgrace.

The good news, DeJesus said, is that we averted catastrophe and elected a pro-union, pro-worker president. She foresees a new normal, a better day—but only if activists press for the infrastructure package and the Build Back Better Act, because even the smallest versions of these bills would be game-changing.

Hearing members vow to fight, DeJesus said they will continue to prove the deepest truth of the union movement—that together we can achieve what we could never accomplish alone.

[Annette Licitra]