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Ground Game

American Teacher
November/December 2012
Feature Story

AFT members are staffing phone banks and going door to door in an effort to help re-elect President Obama.

WHAT WILL BE THE FATE of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and the millions of Americans who now have healthcare coverage under this legislation? Will young people and families continue to have access to Pell Grants and other college tuition assistance? And will right-wing governors and other elected officials feel emboldened to go after the bargaining rights of teachers and other public employees in a naked attempt to silence their voices?

These are questions that AFT members and others are pondering as they prepare to go to the polls on Nov. 6. Put simply, it’s a choice between President Obama’s vision of an America that cares for all of its people—the young, the old, the middle class and the most vulnerable—and a country whose guiding principle is survival of the fittest.

It’s a clear and stark choice for members like Cleveland special education teacher L’Taundra Everhart who vividly recalls last year’s fight to overturn legislation that would have stripped Ohio’s educators, firefighters, police officers and other public employees of their bargaining rights. It’s critical that anti-union, anti-worker laws like the one eventually overturned in Ohio don’t become widespread, Everhart asserts. “You have to have informed voters” and elect candidates who will stop these laws from proliferating, says Everhart, who has regularly participated in the door-to-door canvassing and phone banking organized by the Cleveland Teachers Union and the city’s other unions.

Nlandu Kisenda, a paraprofessional at a high school in Northern Virginia, joined other members of the Fairfax Federation of Teachers in late September for a day of canvassing on behalf of President Obama.

Her reasons for supporting the president are very personal. “My daughter is going to college because of federal student aid programs,” Kisenda says. “She can’t borrow the money from her parents,” a suggestion Romney has made. “I don’t have money for that. There are a lot of smart students out there whose parents are poor.”

President Obama’s support for early childhood education programs and his effort to pass the American Jobs Act, which would rehire laid-off educators and rebuild the nation’s infrastructure and crumbling schools, are among the issues driving AFT members to actively support his re-election.

Thousands of AFT activists—from AFT Pennsylvania to the Florida Education Association to the California Federation of Teachers and everyone in between—are talking to friends and family about what’s at stake this election.

And in Wisconsin, Cynthia Wynn, president of the Wisconsin State Public Defender Association, has volunteered at the Obama for America phone bank in her Milwaukee neighborhood. As a public defender, Wynn wants to preserve the social safety net, and is concerned about Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act and services for the mentally ill. “I’m also very concerned about the horrible positions the Republican Party has taken on women’s issues,” she says.

Sandy Jacobs, an occupational therapist and member of the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, was actively involved in the effort this past spring to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and says it energized a lot of union members and other progressives who weren’t politically active previously. “I think they woke a sleeping giant, and that’s a good thing.”

Bruce Ewan teaches economics at Wayne County Community College in Michigan where he is active in the WCCC Federation of Teachers. He is mobilizing colleagues to vote and talk to others members one-on-one. The conversations are about re-electing Obama, and especially important in Michigan, about passing Proposal 2, which guarantees collective bargaining rights in the state constitution.

In a number of states, including Florida,  New Hampshire and Ohio, the political outreach efforts of AFT members and other unionists have been supplemented by those of members of the New York State United Teachers, many of whom have traveled to those battleground states to assist in get-out-the-vote efforts.

Retirees are fired up

Retiree Tom Luvison spends most afternoons helping manage a phone bank at the Cleveland Teachers Union offices. In addition to the usual issues that concern seniors—healthcare, Medicare, a decent retirement—Luvison wants to help preserve the middle class for his grandchildren.

“We are at a crossroads,” he says. “Do we want a progressive agenda that cares for the majority of people and tries to include them in social programs which promote the general welfare?” Or, Luvison asks, do we want a Romney administration that would steer the country toward privatization and an attitude he describes as “you have to survive on your own”?

The way Ken Goodfriend sees it, this year’s election is about choosing between two very different views of the future—especially when it comes to healthcare for seniors.
Goodfriend, a retired member of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, is concerned that under “a President Romney,” changes made to Medicare and other healthcare programs would have a negative effect on senior citizens.

Goodfriend, who now lives in Boca Raton, Fla., is an active member of his Florida retiree chapter. He’s been helping to coordinate the chapter’s phone banks and letter-writing campaign, where he and his colleagues are encouraging other retirees to vote for President Obama either by using the “early voting” option or by casting absentee ballots.

In states across the country, AFT members are actively working in local and state campaigns and, of course, the presidential election to get out the vote for candidates who support working Americans and the middle class.