Fighting back, fighting forward

A bold call to reclaim the promise of America

AFT PRESIDENT Randi Weingarten kicked off the AFT national convention in Los Angeles with a bold plan to reclaim the promise of America, one that can help create economic and educational opportunity for all because it not only fights back but also “fights forward.”

This work is vital, and the stakes couldn’t be higher, Weingarten told more than 3,500 attendees in an address that cast the current environment as a time of well-funded, well-coordinated attacks against working people, unions, public education and public services. These efforts are designed to destroy rather than to build, she said. Their goal is to starve public institutions, demonize workers and unions, and peddle private alternatives—while marginalizing anyone who opposes them.

The message was one that resonated for the hundreds of higher education delegates in attendance. They packed a divisional meeting, hearing from experts on state disinvestment in higher education and the inequities facing contingent faculty. They also vigorously testified on resolutions.

“We can feel passionately about our issues,” said AFT Higher Education program and policy Chair Sandra Schroeder, who was officiating at her last convention divisional meeting before retiring. “These are not just policies, not just numbers. They’re about how people live, and how we grow and die.”
As delegates convened in the state whose master plan for higher education was once a model for the nation, one speaker noted that the idea that college should be free is as sound today as it was in the 1960s. Yet, disastrously, “the deep and unrelenting cuts that states have faced leave us just steps away from turning higher education into a private good,” said Mark Huelsman, a senior policy analyst with Demos.

Huelsman, Huy Ong, who is an organizer with Jobs with Justice, and the AFT’s Chris Goff shared what’s being done to counter that with efforts such as the “Higher Ed, Not Debt” campaign and the Campaign for a Debt-Free Future.

Another higher education panel, “Ending the Contingent Labor Model in Higher Education,” featured local officers from affiliates that have succeeded in improving the voice and working conditions of nontenure-track faculty. A special presenter was Sara Horowitz, founder and executive director of the Freelancers Union. On July 11, the AFT and the Freelancers Union announced a partnership that will give contingent faculty access to benefits and a broad community of part-time workers.

Resolutions chart a future course

Back on the convention floor, delegates passed three higher education resolutions and a special order of business on contingent labor, student debt, teacher training assessment, and fair and appropriate accreditation.

“Just when everyone is saying that higher education is more important than ever, we are disinvesting in the very people who have become the most responsible for educating today’s students,” said John Miller, a delegate from the University Professionals of Illinois, speaking in support of the resolution “Ending the Exploitation of and the Reliance on a Contingent Academic Labor System in Higher Education.”

“This is simply unacceptable.”

Heidi Edwards, from the Portland Community College Federation of Faculty and Academic Professionals, pointed out that passing the resolution would affect more than just faculty. “About a third (100) of our academic professionals at PCC are contingent labor—that’s our academic advisers, counselors, student learning specialists.”

Delegates passed another resolution to benefit contingent workers, called the “Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program Eligibility for Part-Time Faculty.” It addresses a glitch in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program that makes it difficult for part-time workers to certify their eligibility for the loan forgiveness that other public workers have.

Delegates overwhelmingly supported a resolution to put the brakes on the adoption of a high-stakes test for schoolchildren in order to measure the effectiveness of their teachers’ training institutions. The test, known as the edTPA, is a profit-making enterprise for the behemoth Pearson company. “Faculty are not being adequately involved in the development of this teacher performance assessment,” said Jamie Dangler, vice president for academics of the United University Professions at the State University of New York. The edTPA is being rolled out in New York and 30 other states, but AFT members and teachers have been able to slow implementation in New York.

“What we have here is really a mimicking in higher education of the same basic game plan carried out in K-12 education,” said Michael Fabricant, treasurer of the Professional Staff Congress at the City University of New York. The resolution is called “EdTPA and Respect for the Professionalism of Teacher Educators.”
In a special order of business, delegates unanimously passed an emergency resolution in solidarity with higher education colleagues in San Francisco who have been fighting a pernicious campaign by a small but powerful commission of accreditors that is seeking to close the City College of San Francisco. “Support Fair Accreditation and the Fight to Save Our City College of San Francisco” commits the AFT to continue the fight against the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges’ unjust, biased actions, to protect all colleges in the region and others affected nationwide.

Convention delegates also passed a special order of business to fight the attacks on unions and teachers driving lawsuits such as Vergara v. California and Harris v. Quinn, which threaten school job security and union voice, and sustain the “deprofessionalization, privatization and test obsession” that plague public education. A resolution to support the Common Core State Standards drew passionate debate before passing. Also passed: support for immigration reform, a special order of business regarding Central American children crossing into the United States to flee violence in their home countries, a resolution to increase locals’ dues by 45 cents, and a boost for the Solidarity Fund.

But the fireworks came through an agenda full of inspiring speakers. Activists and believers like the Rev. Dr. William Barber, California Gov. Jerry Brown and AFT President Weingarten passionately declared their intentions to reclaim the promise of America.

Barber stirred the crowd with an urgent call to action. “We are in the midst of a moral crisis that demands we have a movement now,” he said. “If we don’t address systemic racism and extremism and poverty, it costs us the soul of our nation.”

Brown, whose state has directed extra money to the neediest school districts, used the AFT’s own language: “What’s most important is reclaiming the promise of building the future, not stealing from it.”

Weingarten noted that despite devastating challenges faced by labor unions, the AFT—at 1.6 million members strong—is larger than ever before. “Our union of professionals gives us the strength and solidarity to fight for what’s right,” she said. She urged delegates to connect with their communities, pursue solution-driven unionism, and engage and empower their members.

Guest after guest joined the chorus to support public education, including actor and activist Cynthia Nixon, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, and U.S. Reps. Mark Takano, Judy Chu and Michael Honda. Ten-year-old Asean Johnson, who has helped lead the fight for public schools in Chicago, joined teacher and union organizer Mark Levy, a veteran of the civil rights battles of the 1960s, to reclaim the promise of justice across generations. And Donna Brazile, a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, announced the new, AFT-backed Democrats for Public Education, which she co-chairs.

To give back to their host city, AFT volunteers visited the All Peoples Community Center to distribute free groceries and books, set up healthy cooking demonstrations and direct local residents to health assessment services, helping community members connect with other social networks that will serve them well into the future. It was a perfect example of how the AFT is truly reclaiming the promise.
 

AFT On Campus, Fall 2014
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