In an effort to rally activists to focus on bolstering membership and strengthening the union, AFT leaders held meetings in each of the union's five regions over the last four months.
The jam-packed member engagement meetings, each held over the course of two days, inspired hundreds of local leaders, member activists and staff to redouble efforts to activate members in every division—teachers, PSRP, higher education, public employees, and nurses and healthcare professionals. The meetings were driven by a sense of urgency, as leaders and staff explained the effect the Supreme Court case Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association could have on the AFT. The case, backed by wealthy interests and aimed at silencing workers' collective voice, threatens the resources the union needs to represent all workers, advocate for better working and learning conditions for educators and students, and help ensure communities have access to the healthcare and public services they depend on.
At the Western regional meeting Jan. 15-16—the last of the series of these meetings—California Federation of Teachers President Joshua Pechthalt recalled the days before digital communication and automatic dues deduction, when union shop stewards walked the halls to collect dues and hear directly from each member about any developments, ideas or problems. Along with social media and technology-driven outreach, reclaiming those intimate connections will be vital to renewing the personal relationships on which a strong union is built.
AFT Executive Vice President Mary Cathryn Ricker urged participants to remember whatever it was that first moved them to become activists, and use that inspiration to "make your union work irresistible" and "compelling." While the Friedrichs case may be "daunting," said Ricker, "We're up for it."
A recurring tongue-in-cheek theme among those who shared member engagement experiences was that "data is sexy." Mining contact information and local records to determine how to reach fee payers and nonmembers, and how to follow up with existing members, is crucial. Other successful tactics include blitzes to visit thousands of school employees, and developing strong alliances with parents and the community.
Activists have packed school board meetings to speak about school conditions that need improvement. Leaders have reached out to students who have then testified to support their faculty. And members have involved a broad spectrum of community members at their rallies and demonstrations. There have been "red T-shirt Tuesdays" for the United Teachers Los Angeles, whose color is red, and stickers declaring, "My Class Size Is ___" with a filled-in blank showing how overcrowded classrooms have become. (UTLA Vice President Betty Forrester is pictured above.)
The regional meetings also featured workshops that offered real-world solutions for difficult organizing conversations ("Why should I join the union?"), tracking successes and failures, creating member-to-member outreach, overcoming apathy and building workplace structures for ongoing activism, and connecting our racial equity and member engagement work.
Since the union has laser-focused on member engagement, we've had plenty of successes. In Washington, D.C., 700 fee payers became full members. In Duvall County, Fla., 600 new members signed up. And at Local 6262, which represents part-time faculty at the College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, Calif., union leaders staffed information tables for four days, educated students who became allies, and worked their data to boost membership from 38 to 52 percent in a year. Its goal is to reach 70 percent by the end of May.
On a larger scale, AFT President Randi Weingarten told Western regional meeting participants that coordinating efforts with sister unions will strengthen the labor movement, as will community support. AFT-affiliated programs like First Book, which has distributed nearly 4 million books to low-income families, and Share My Lesson, with its 10 million downloads of lessons by and for teachers, spread the word that the union stands for public good.
Weingarten admitted that if the court in Friedrichs rules against the union, "Our collective lives will change fundamentally." But she also said she is "incredibly optimistic. This kind of crisis brings about huge opportunity," she said. "It helps us create real power."
"Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger."
[Virginia Myers/staff photos]