This year's Professional Issues Conference for AFT Nurses and Health Professionals was filled with even more energy and urgency than in past conferences. The nurses and health professionals who gathered in Washington, D.C., June 3-5 came to prepare for the fights that are ahead for the labor movement.
The sustained attack on working people and the healthcare profession has been challenging "but with every challenge comes opportunity, and we have to seize those opportunities," said Ann Twomey, president of Health Professionals and Allied Employees in New Jersey, during the opening plenary session."We need to create unity and become educated so that we can be aware of what's going on and push back against policies that undermine our way of life and our democracy," said Twomey who is also an AFT vice president.
'Resisting is where it starts'
A panel on strengthening the union in a post-Janus environment gave attendees strategies for broadening their work in their communities and exploring ways to protect access to healthcare.
"Our attackers believe they are primed to deliver a mortal blow to the voice of workers," said panelist Mark Richard, counsel to AFT president Randi Weingarten. Richard noted that our opponents are using a number of tactics to pull labor apart: limiting the scope of collective bargaining, making states "right to work,” and overregulating the healthcare field.
"The agenda to undermine us is a well-thought-out scheme to put an end to unions," said Richard. But union members have a weapon to fight” our opponents’ plan, and it starts with the knowledge that "we are in this together. To say, 'I’m sticking with my union,' is a simple slogan but it is also an amazing human moment. It is not a tactic, it’s a social movement covenant," he added The better we maintain our voice with strength and the institution of union, the more we’re ready for what's coming."
Sinsi Hernández-Cancio, director of health equity at Families USA, discussed the impact that changing demographics and globalization are having on the United States and pointed out that our country is in the midst of a struggle driven by these changes, asking the crowd: "How will healthcare evolve so we can thrive as a country?" Hernández-Cancio suggested that now is the time to prepare and determine how to make real the promise of healthcare as a right. "Think about the power you have. Nurses are still the most trusted profession in the country—and that is powerful,” she said. “There's a lot for us to fight for, and it's up to us to put ourselves in a better position for the next election to ensure everyone has the ability to live the healthiest life with the highest-quality care—equally."
Labor movement icon Heather Booth told attendees, "This is a time of incredible peril, but it’s also a time of inspiration because people are fighting back. Resisting is where it starts, and organizing is at the core—not just the talking but the listening, the building the relationship, sharing our values and sharing our stories," said Booth, who is president of the Midwest Academy, a training institute committed to advancing the struggle for social, economic and racial justice. "Every day, every minute is precious just as every patient, every healthcare professional is precious and make those moments count."
'We are ready'
AFT President Randi Weingarten shared a message of empowerment with the health professionals. "Today's environment is polarized." The opponents of labor are spending millions trying to kill the institutions that give regular working people power—voting, public education and the labor movement, said Weingarten. "If we lose our democracy, then working people have no voice in America."
The challenge of engagement vs. disempowerment and frustration is something we confront daily, she said, noting the best way to confront it is by caring, fighting and showing up, along with member engagement and community involvement. "The Janus challenge has forced us to engage our members more, and it is connecting all of us. We are ready. And we are going to change this world for the better starting with the labor movement."
During the closing plenary, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) encouraged members to stay faithful in their quest (pictured below). "We have come this far by faith. Our nation needs our faith, our love. It needs us to show up, to speak up, to stand up, and to fight—if we stand together we will make it through this difficult time."
The three-day conference also featured a panel discussion on health disparities led by AFT Executive Vice President Mary Cathryn Ricker. The panel shared strategies for reducing gaps in care and health outcomes based on race, as well as ideas on how to recruit and retain a more diverse workforce. Several conference workshops focused on advocating for patients and professional development. In addition, a delegation of conference attendees took part in a demonstration on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol sponsored by the Poor Peoples Campaign. Attendees also had an opportunity to lobby their members of Congress on improving the quality and safety of healthcare.