WASHINGTON—American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten laid out an expansive vision to tackle the nation’s triple crisis in a keynote speech Tuesday to 4,000 delegates meeting virtually at the union’s biennial convention. And she warned that, with schools set to reopen within days, urgent action is needed to keep kids and teachers safe.
Weingarten’s State of the Union address zeroed in on the three crises facing America—a public health crisis, an economic crisis and a long-overdue reckoning with racism. She detailed how these crises are being made worse by President Trump and emphasized the urgency of the November elections, not only to defeat Trump but to elect Joe Biden and reimagine America.
“Activism and elections build the power necessary to create a better life, a voice at work and a voice in our democracy. Activism changes the narrative, elections change policy, and, together, they change lives,” said Weingarten.
Weingarten honored the 200 AFT members who have died in the line of duty, and the hundreds of thousands who have protected, cared for, engaged and fed our communities during the pandemic. But those efforts have been met with reckless inaction by the Trump administration and some state officials who have failed to provide either a plan or adequate resources as community spread has skyrocketed.
While safety and education needs are front and center in many of America’s 16,000 school districts, and states such as New York have curbed the virus and published strong reopening plans, Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have embraced virus denialism and waged a weekslong campaign to force reopening with threats and bluster.
In her speech, Weingarten unveiled a resolution passed by the AFT’s 45-member executive council backing locally authorized “safety strikes”—on a case-by-case basis and as a last resort—to ensure safety amid the absence of urgency by federal and some state officials to tackle the coronavirus surge.
“Let’s be clear,” Weingarten told delegates. “Just as we have done with our healthcare workers, we will fight on all fronts for the safety of our students and their educators. But if the authorities don’t get it right, and they don’t protect the safety and health of those we represent and those we serve, nothing is off the table—not advocacy or protests, negotiations, grievances or lawsuits, or, if necessary as a last resort, safety strikes.”
Weingarten said the union’s members want to return to school buildings for the sake of their kids’ learning—and the well-being of families—but only if conditions are safe. And that requires planning and hundreds of billions of dollars in resources the Senate and the administration have refused to provide.
That message is at the center of “Reopening School Buildings Safely,” an updated AFT plan for reopening, launched today, outlining three essential conditions for school buildings to reopen: low infection rates and adequate testing, public health safeguards to help prevent the spread of the virus in schools, and the resources and funding to make it happen. The union released its first school reopening plan in April, weeks before the original Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance.
AFT members have worked nonstop since February to protect students, educators, healthcare workers and our communities. Those actions have included work on countless reopening committees, negotiations with local leaders, advocacy at home and in the Congress, and litigation.
Weingarten spoke of AFT nurses and health professionals treating patients, saving lives and securing the personal protective equipment members need; educators’ actions to shift to remote learning when the virus hit, providing children meals and supports; and the union’s advocacy to secure the federal funding states, cities and towns desperately need. The AFT’s executive council passed a resolution in June laying out 19 commitments to combat systemic racism and violence against Black people. And Florida educators, with the help of the AFT, have sued officials pushing for a full reopening as cases top daily records.
In her address, Weingarten drew a sharp contrast between Trump and Biden, saying that “we’ve got a choice between two people—and two visions for America—that couldn’t be more different.”
“Why would anyone trust President Trump with reopening schools, when he has mishandled everything else about the coronavirus? Why would anyone trust Betsy DeVos, who has zero credibility about how public schools actually work? Why would anyone try to reopen schools through force and threats, without a plan and without resources, creating chaos? Unless all they wanted was for it to fail?”
“Before the virus’ resurgence, and before Trump’s and DeVos’ reckless ‘open or else’ threats, 76 percent of AFT members said they were comfortable returning to school buildings if the proper safeguards were in place,” Weingarten said. “Now they’re afraid and angry. Many are quitting, retiring or writing their wills. Parents are afraid and angry, too.”
Trump has “caged children and torn families apart. He teargassed peaceful protestors for a photo op, and sent federal forces to Portland, Ore., uninvited, to incite violence. He gave Vladimir Putin a pass for putting bounties on American troops. As the economy slumps and COVID-19 deaths spike, President Trump has chosen to be the commander in chief of a culture war, not the consoler in chief to a nation in pain.”
Joe Biden is a decent, honest, caring and effective candidate who has put forth policies that embrace and fund public schools, child care and free college; treat healthcare as a right; strengthen labor unions; and confront racial inequities.
“Just like the New Deal and the Great Society, we know that bold action is needed to achieve the economy and society that we have long championed,” she said. “A society in which people have the opportunity to attain a better life—good jobs with a living wage and a union, adequate healthcare and housing, child care and retirement, a healthy and sustainable environment, and justice for all.”
“We lost Michigan by 10,000 votes in the last presidential election. Our members showed up. In 2016, 82 percent of our members were registered to vote, and 73 percent voted. But some of the folks they are closest to did not. Changing outcomes like that is within our grasp.”
Weingarten issued a call for 100,000 actions a month to support Biden—phone calls, texts, emails and other mobilizations—through Election Day.
Despite the monumental challenges the country faces, she ended on an upbeat note.
“I am hopeful, despite everything we are going through. There is a basic goodness in the souls of Americans. We must have leadership that matches that goodness. Together, we can temper the health, economic and racial justice crises that are tearing our country apart. Together, we can rethink, reimagine and rebuild our country. Together, we have the power to defeat Donald Trump and elect Joe Biden. Together, we will care, fight, show up and vote for a better life for all Americans.”
Delegates to the AFT’s 2020 national convention are joining virtually from around the country across the union’s K-12, paraprofessional, higher education, healthcare and public employee divisions. Delegates will debate policy and hear from special guests, including New York Democratic congressional nominee Jamaal Bowman, Minneapolis NAACP President Leslie Redmond, author Anand Giridharadas, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, professor and historian Diane Ravitch, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.