Weingarten Joins New Jersey Activists for Day of Action

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AFT president Randi Weingarten was in New Jersey on April 26 to join a galvanized Garden State coalition of labor, religious, human rights and community groups that are standing up to the bullying and the orchestrated attacks unfolding in Trenton and in legislatures across the country.

The day of action featured events throughout the state, beginning with a rally in southern New Jersey to save the Vineland Developmental Center, a state hospital for women. Gov. Chris Christie has floated a proposal to close the center, which serves clients as old as 95, some of whom have relied on its services for five decades.

Some of New Jersey's most vulnerable residents are cruelly targeted under the Christie proposal, warned Weingarten. "This is about working together for fairness and services for those who need them—and not letting a bully split us apart."

She was joined at Vineland by the Rev. Al Sharpton, who said the fight to save Vineland was part of a story that many communities face. "Those who took the economy and let the rich get richer, now they want to balance their books by closing a facility we need."

Lee A. Saunders, secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), told the crowd that public workers are determined to stand with a growing coalition of groups that are fighting for services working Americans need and deserve. Echoing a rallying cry heard in Wisconsin's legislative battles, Saunders pledged to continue the fight "one day longer"—making sure that policymakers' calls for shared sacrifice don't become a national "a race to the bottom."

Weingarten, Saunders and Sharpton finished the morning at Shiloh Baptist Church, which hosted a roundtable discussion on legislative attacks that ranged from voucher schemes to moves to gut collective bargaining and public employee pensions. Shiloh Baptist was eager to host the event, Pastor Darrell Armstrong told the audience, as a "way to address issues that affect working-class families who need this type of advocacy."

Featured speakers stressed the importance of seeing developments not as a series of state-specific attacks but as part of a well-choreographed and carefully synchronized attack from a handful of wealthy private interests. "It's a one-two-three punch," Weingarten told the crowd. The first step is to use fear-based attacks to divide the community. The second step is to leverage that division into anti-labor laws that silence people. And the final step, she warned, will be to destroy public budgets and the vital services they fund.

The AFT, she said, is committed to "changing the power dynamic in this country" by building the types of strong community alliances that can counterbalance the powerful elite and stop their agenda of division where it starts. "When we are together, people can't break us apart."

"Let the word go out that labor and civil rights are together" in this fight, Sharpton said. "The blood of [labor activist A. Philip] Randolph and Martin Luther King is deeper than any waters that divide us."

Following the Trenton roundtable, Sharpton hosted Weingarten and Saunders on his daily syndicated radio show. The three then traveled to Newark for a spirited rally at City Hall.

Saunders fired up the group, saying that attacks on the public sector and working Americans in the state legislatures "had awakened a sleeping giant"—the coalition of labor, religious and civic groups that are coming together as never before.

Newark Teachers Union president Joseph Del Grosso, who introduced Weingarten at the rally, invoked the words of Robert Kennedy by reminding the crowd, "Where unions are strong, the cause of progress and social justice is advanced, and where unions are weak, the whole society suffers."

Weingarten told the Newark audience that what is unfolding "is a human rights cause, a civil rights cause and an education cause—all of us coming together to say, 'United we make a difference.' " [Mike Rose]

April 28, 2011