AFT President Randi Weingarten outlined three national crises—a public health crisis, an economic crisis and a crisis of racial justice, all made worse by Donald Trump—in her State of the Union address. Kicking off the AFT’s virtual convention, she detailed a plan for addressing these crises through activism and elections, and especially by sending Joe Biden to the White House and electing a Senate that will support his progressive agenda. Convention delegates and guests followed along remotely as Weingarten told of AFT members fighting on the frontlines of COVID-19, and they listened as she said the names of African Americans, such as George Floyd, who were murdered “because they were Black.”
Weingarten was introduced by Wayne Spence, the president of the New York State Public Employees Federation, who spent 24 years as a parole officer. Spence, who emigrated to the United States from Jamaica at age 10, shared his own searing experience with racism. In 1986, when he was a college student in Florida, police unlawfully arrested him for a traffic citation and threw him in jail. Spence explained the arrest happened simply because he was Black, and it changed the trajectory of his life. It inspired him to pursue a career in law enforcement so he could ensure that others would not face such discrimination.
As a result, the recent nationwide protests for racial justice have been emotional for him, and he personally thanked Weingarten for “her willingness to walk the walk” on confronting racism. “I just can’t stop commending the work AFT has done to stop the school-to-prison pipeline and the criminalization of Black youth,” he said.
In her speech, Weingarten laid out our nation’s dire situation, but her words were not devoid of hope. She praised AFT members for striking in 2018 through early 2020 to meet students’ needs and increase patients’ safety, for calling on officials to fund our future and ultimately for standing up for what’s right.
Those actions explain why people join the AFT. Since the last convention, the union has organized 59 new units with nearly 12,000 workers in 21 states. And since the Janus decision, it has seen a net growth of more than 44,000 members, including 4,000 new members since the pandemic began. The numbers reflect Weingarten’s belief that “together we can accomplish things that are impossible on our own.”
Protecting frontline workers
With the virus surging in 40 states, Weingarten called out Trump for his catastrophic job performance and his baseless claim that the virus would disappear. So far, more than 150,000 people in the United States have died from COVID-19; the numbers of infections and deaths now surpass those of any other country. “This isn’t for lack of dedicated health professionals, world-renowned medical institutions and esteemed infectious-disease scientists,” Weingarten said. “The AFT is honored to represent more than 200,000 of these incredible health professionals.”
She lauded members caring for patients with COVID-19, often without personal protective equipment. To get them PPE, the AFT did what the federal government failed to do: It secured more than 50,000 face shields, 500,000 N95 respirators, and more than 1 million surgical masks for frontline members.
She spoke of educators like Michele Bushey, a high school biology teacher in Saranac, N.Y., who supported students lacking internet access by calling them each day for instruction. And she highlighted Yolanda Fisher, a school food service manager and member of Alliance/AFT Dallas, who, along with her colleagues, have been preparing and distributing up to 1,000 meals daily so students won’t go hungry.
Weingarten noted more than 200 members have died from COVID-19, including Jonathan Coelho, a 32-year-old probation officer in Danbury, Conn.; Gabrielle Gayle, a fourth-grade special education teacher and union delegate in Queens; and Elva Graveline, a certified nursing assistant in Connecticut.
‘A moment of reckoning that requires all of us to act’
The scourge of racism has plagued our nation—and this moment of reckoning is long overdue. Noting problems like police brutality, mass incarceration, inequitable school funding, inadequate housing, insufficient access to healthcare, high unemployment and voter suppression, Weingarten outlined systemic racial bias in this country. “Trump did not invent racial injustice, but he has fanned the flames of prejudice and made the divisions in our country much worse,” she said. “This is a moment of reckoning that requires all of us to act.”
She highlighted the diversity of the protests for Black lives and pointed to “some long-overdue progress in policing,” such as banning police use of chokeholds, changing use-of-force guidelines and adopting “duty to intervene” policies.
The AFT supports such measures. For its part, the executive council “passed a resolution in June laying out 19 commitments to combat systemic racism and violence against Black people,” Weingarten said. These include calling for the separation of school safety from policing and help for school staff to support children who experience racial trauma.
‘We can’t let up now’
To show that extreme income inequality existed before the pandemic, Weingarten shared some statistics: “Seventy-eight percent of Americans were living paycheck to paycheck. Forty percent of Americans couldn’t cover a $400 emergency. Thirty million children relied on school meals. Twenty percent of the country’s 43 million federal student loan borrowers were in default.”
She noted that 45 million Americans have lost their jobs since the pandemic’s spread, yet “U.S. billionaires added $584 billion to their own wealth.” With state and local budgets in freefall, nearly 1 million people working in schools and colleges have lost their jobs. “And 1.4 million more educators will lose their jobs if the Senate denies states and schools the funds they need for essential services,” she said.
It’s been months since schools were forced to close because of the virus, yet Trump and Betsy DeVos still have no plan save for demanding that schools reopen. The AFT, however, does have a plan. Released in April, the AFT’s “A Plan to Safely Reopen America’s Schools and Communities” is grounded in science, public health protocols, and expertise from school staff and healthcare professionals. And today, the AFT released “Reopening School Buildings Safely,” an updated plan outlining three essential conditions for school reopening: low infection rates and adequate testing, public health safeguards to help prevent the spread of the virus in schools, and the necessary resources and funding.
“There is no one-size-fits-all approach to school reopening,” Weingarten acknowledged. In Montana, public schools have reopened with necessary precautions, but students will begin school virtually in Atlanta, Houston and Los Angeles because the virus there is surging. When Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered all schools to reopen in Florida, despite an increase in COVID-19 cases, the Florida Education Association, with the AFT’s support, filed a lawsuit against him. “We will fight on all fronts for the safety of our students and their educators,” Weingarten vowed, warning that in some places locally authorized safety strikes may be necessary “as a last resort.”
She said schools need at least $1.2 million, or $2,300 per student, to reopen safely. While the House of Representative passed the HEROES Act in May—a package that includes $1 trillion for states, cities and towns, including $100 billion for public education and $50 billion for child care, among other funding—Weingarten blasted the Senate for failing to vote on and pass the bill. She encouraged members to continue fighting for the HEROES Act by contacting their senators. “We can’t let up now.”
Electing Joe Biden
To unite our divided nation, we must elect Joe Biden. Calling him a “decent” and “honest” man, Weingarten said that Biden cares about working people. And, she continued, “with a teacher, Dr. Jill Biden, at his side,” he will work with us to build a better future for our members and for our communities.
Although the polls show Biden leading Trump, Weingarten urged everyone to stay engaged, not only in electing Biden but in electing senators who will support his progressive platform. “We need to win, and win decisively,” she said. “Democracy is on the ballot.”