AFT President Randi Weingarten addressed a full convention hall Friday, outlining the fight the union has before it and, more importantly, urging members to find “hope in the darkness” at a crucial juncture for American democracy and Americans’ aspirations for a better life. Convention participants followed closely, demonstrating enthusiastic and loud support with standing ovations—for the stories about how AFT members are sticking with their unions in huge numbers, and for the way our collective voice is so much stronger together. They also demonstrated strong support for better immigration policies that are pro-Dreamer, pro-Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and against migrant family separation.
Weingarten laid out a path for a strong union movement in the face of the Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court decision and right-wing attacks—a path that depends on engaging members and involving community around issues that matter. And she sounded a dire warning for the future of American democracy in the Trump era, framing the 2018 election as a battle for decency over cruelty.
“We are a year and a half into this presidency, and we have cause for great concern,” she said. “This state of affairs is not normal. I cannot be silent and neither can you. … Beyond demanding decency, we must defend democracy at this most crucial moment for American democracy since the rise of fascism and authoritarianism in the 1930s.”
Weingarten called for AFT members to unite with our communities in the lead-up to the November midterm elections and framed voting as the way to translate the activism we are seeing across the country into enduring change. She also noted that nearly 300 AFT members are running for elected office: They “aren’t just casting their ballots—they’re ON the ballot.”
“These elections won’t just determine whether Republicans or Democrats prevail, but whether cruelty or decency prevails,” she said. “We must be a check and balance for our democracy and for a society that is safe, welcoming and sane.”
“America’s labor movement is central to defending democracy. Authoritarian governments invariably attack unions, seeking to undermine them, because unions have always been in the forefront of the fight for democracy. … So when it comes to November 2018, we must be together and we must be all-in, which is why I am so glad that both Secretary Clinton and Sen. Sanders are with us at this convention.”
Weingarten zeroed in on the challenges and opportunities facing labor unions in the post-Janus era, amid continued threats from a right wing and an administration determined to deny workers a shot at a better life. “Right-wing groups and their wealthy allies want us gone, because unions are often the only organized force challenging their enormous power in politics and the economy,” she said. “It’s part of their trifecta strategy: suppress the vote, privatize public education and eliminate unions—the three ways working folks have any agency, any real power, in America.”
“They know that working people gain strength in numbers,” Weingarten continued. “And they know working people do better when they join together in unions. So the right wing is doing everything they can to stop us, so people have to fend for themselves.”
Weingarten juxtaposed the feeling of apprehension during the Janus oral arguments—when the conservative justices made it clear that they wanted to “destroy unions and, with them, the aspirations and dreams of working folks,” overturn 40 years of precedent, and weaponize the First Amendment—with the hope and inspiration of the teacher walkouts that launched two weeks later in West Virginia and spread across the country.
“People see that despair is not a strategy, and that—together—these fights are winnable,” she said.
Weingarten continued, “Like so much of the recent activism, the teacher walkouts are stoking a movement for social justice, for workers’ rights, for women’s rights, for civil rights and children’s rights, for decent healthcare and well-funded public schools, for safety—on the streets and in our schools. People acting together and accomplishing together what individuals can’t do on their own.”
And she noted that the Janus decision, which its wealthy funders hoped would encourage members to “drop” the union, has in fact galvanized members to join and recommit to the AFT in record numbers. “Where our opponents have waged their bare-knuckle opt-out campaigns, the stories of drops have been few and far between. We have seen just the opposite: members recommitting and new members joining.”
More than 530,000 AFT members have recommitted to the union, and the AFT has reached its highest membership ever at 1,755,000 members.
But that’s not stopping right-wing groups from targeting union members, she said, noting that in the days since the Janus decision, “right-wing billionaires have spent millions, literally millions, on opt-out campaigns and lawsuits. The Mackinac Center, for example, with funding from the Koch brothers and Betsy DeVos, is spamming every educator in nearly a dozen states on their school email accounts.”
Weingarten said the way forward for unions in the face of these attacks is to engage members and involve community around issues that matter—safe communities and welcoming, well-funded public schools; affordable healthcare and higher education; good wages, a secure retirement, and a voice at work and in our democracy; decency and fairness, and fighting hatred and bigotry; and fighting for family values and a better America.
Concluding with a call to action to keep caring, fighting, showing up and voting, Weingarten said, “We are in a battle for the soul of our nation. It’s terrifying, but we have confronted dreadful times before. … But I come down on the side of hope.”
“America can and does change,” she continued. “Power concedes nothing without a demand, as Frederick Douglass taught us, and we have been fighting powerful forces for centuries. ... The arc of the universe does bend toward justice—but not on its own. It bends because people like you and me put our hands on it and bend it. So now it’s our turn. This is on us. This is our moment.”
Read the full speech here.
[Virginia Myers; photos by Michael Campbell and Elliot Cramer]