Choosing Hope, Aspiration and a Better Life for All
Keynote Address by AFT President Randi Weingarten
AFT 2022 Convention
July 14, 2022
It is impossible to capture all we have been through the past two years. A pandemic, and a plot to overturn a presidential election. Mask wars, culture wars, a war on truth, and a war in Ukraine. Floods in Puerto Rico, and fires in New Mexico. Shattering gun violence in Uvalde, Buffalo, Tulsa, Highland Park and so many other communities. Racism and the fear and trauma it inflicts. An extremist majority on the Supreme Court that eviscerated the Constitution’s separation of church and state, overturned Roe, and hobbled Miranda, the Environmental Protection Agency and the states’ ability to keep their citizens safe—all in a single month. Oil companies and other corporations are reaping record profits yet squeezing us dry at the pump and the grocery store. And I haven’t even begun to talk about how challenging it has been just to do the work we do. Or about the people we have loved and lost. Is there anything else that could be thrown at us?
For all those we have lost, that sorrow never goes away. Please, join me for a moment of silence to honor and remember those we have lost.
The first year of the pandemic was hard. But in many ways this year was harder. It was brutal for public employees. As the need surged for essential services, so have your workloads. This year was brutal for educators. Students returned to campuses and classrooms with enormous needs, and educators, weighted down with more responsibilities, summoned everything you had to help them recover. And it was brutal for nurses and healthcare professionals, who have heroically fought the war on COVID-19.
You—the members of our union—have carried the country through the hardest days of the pandemic. You have sacrificed and struggled. You have brought our students and our communities to a better place. Thank you. Thank you for caring, for fighting, for showing up. For making a difference.
Words alone can’t express my profound gratitude to you. So we tried to express it by showing up. Fed, Evelyn and I have been road warriors. Wherever you were, we tried to be there. In schools and bus depots, union halls and coffee shops, hospitals and picket lines. At last count, I have been to more than 150 work sites in the last 14 months.
Yes, I see the stress and strain, I see the frustration. But I also see your work. The work to get schools and colleges open and to help students connect and learn; the organizing to make our workplaces safer, to get the resources needed; the engagement with parents and communities.
And I see the attacks—attacks on public schools and universities and the people who work in them, attacks on healthcare personnel, attacks on democracy, attacks on our freedoms.
Demagogues are playing on fear: Fear of the other. Fear of change. Fear built on false narratives. And the tech companies aren’t helping. Social media is weaponizing this hatred and division. Being online can be like swimming with sharks, most alarmingly for our children.
And too many politicians are making it worse. You know the politicians I am talking about—the ones who stoke grievances rather than solve problems. They should be helping us help our kids and our communities, not making it harder with their culture wars and division.
Frankly, in times like this I lean on my faith. I often tease that my wife is a rabbi, but seriously, I think a lot about the Bible story of Esther, who also lived in a troubled time, when those in power sought to maintain their privilege through oppression. At a pivotal moment, a reluctant Esther was told, “You have been put here for such a time as this.” And she acted. My friends, so must we. That certainty comes not only from the faith I was raised in but my faith in you, in us and in our movement. We are here for a reason.
Here’s how I see it: This moment can be viewed through the lens of fear or hope; despair or aspiration; self-interest or the greater good. The members of this union definitively, defiantly and undeniably choose hope, aspiration and the greater good.
Hope, Aspiration and the Greater Good
When the last administration’s response to COVID-19 was chaotic and reckless, our members were on the frontlines, putting themselves and their loved ones at risk, and we haven’t stopped.
When healthcare corporations put profits over patients, we make safety and care for patients and providers the priority. When nurses and healthcare personnel had to resort to wearing garbage bags as protective gear, the AFT scoured the globe and bought $3 million worth of personal protective equipment for our members. Now we are fighting for safety and respect and the contract language to enforce it—from the Washington State Nurses Association’s fight for safe staffing, to the strikes at Backus Hospital in Connecticut, Jersey Shore University Medical Center in New Jersey and St. Charles Medical Center in Bend, Ore.
When others played blame games during the pandemic, our members rolled up our sleeves to make in-person learning safe and welcoming. The AFT embarked on an unprecedented Back to School for All campaign last summer, giving $5 million in grants to 1,800 AFT affiliates serving some 20 million students. We stood up in-person summer school, we answered families’ questions, we provided mobile vaccination clinics and after-school reading support, and we worked to create safe and welcoming environments for our students from pre-K to college.
When culture warriors try to prevent teachers from teaching honest history, we stand up for teaching the truth—the good, the bad and the mountains we have climbed. Between Share My Lesson, the Shanker Institute, and the AFT’s partnership with NewsGuard for media literacy, we are supporting our members in teaching civics and honest history, so young people can reckon with our past, understand our present and create a better future. And the AFT has a legal defense fund for any member who is punished for teaching the truth.
When privatizers try to end public education as we know it, we defend public education as the public good it is, and we fight for the learning conditions you and our students need. We pressed for President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, with $170 billion to enable schools and colleges to open safely, support students with disabilities, and hire and retain essential school staff. Locals from Minneapolis to St. Paul, Scranton to Providence, Los Angeles to New York, have won vital student supports like school nurses, mental health services, guidance counselors and smaller class sizes. And among other benefits, the AFT offers a trauma benefit for all members and offers support with collective bargaining.
When others ignore crushing student debt, which disproportionately hurts young people of color, we give our members the tools to eliminate it. The AFT has held hundreds of student debt clinics. And we went to court: We sued Navient to stop its misleading loan practices, and we sued former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to fix the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. Borrowers have had $8.1 billion of student debt forgiven so far through the AFT’s advocacy around PSLF—that’s 145,000 borrowers. Here’s just one example: Last month, we helped an AFT member in California wipe out her $450,000 student debt. And now the entire AFL-CIO is joining us in the fight to cancel student debt.
When grandmothers are gunned down at the grocery store or at a July Fourth parade, and children and teachers are murdered at school, we demand an end to this carnage and to the gun deaths that occur every day in this country. More than 100 AFT locals joined our students at the March for Our Lives rallies in Washington and across the country last month. And while not enough, federal commonsense gun safety legislation was passed—the first in three decades.
When people with power try to lock in systems that privilege the few, decimate the middle class and make every day a struggle for working people, we fight for a better life for all and for the next generation to do even better.
Above all, when people of ill will try to poison our country with fear and anger, we offer a path that lifts everyone up. We fight for everyone’s freedoms.
We are the antidote to division and despair. Our members in public service, in education and in healthcare make a difference in people’s lives every day.
Take our public schools. Students came back with such enormous needs, and you’re helping them recover. And Americans know that. In a recent poll, 88 percent of parents agreed that their child’s teachers have done the best they could during these challenging times.
So why do we feel under attack all the time?
Why are some people blaming us for problems outside our control—whether caused by the pandemic, poverty, bad policies or inadequate funding? Why are our opponents going DEFCON 1—with sleazy lies about “grooming” and calling teachers pedophiles? Why are Fox News and some GOP officials spreading these conspiracies and other hateful ideas, which social media stokes and amplifies?
Because the extremists—the anti-public schools crowd, the anti-union crowd, the privatizers, the haters—they see the importance of public schooling as a unifying American value and they see that Americans value educators.
So the extremists plot to change that. We should believe them when they tell us, as Betsy DeVos’ pal Christopher Rufo did, that to achieve their goal of a universal voucher system, they will be “ruthless and brutal” and “operate from a premise of universal public school distrust.”
As our country becomes more diverse, these fearmongers prey on racial and economic anxieties, stirring up resentment and racial and ethnic tribalism. They’re promoting despicable conspiracies like the “great replacement theory” while misrepresenting legitimate academic fields like critical race theory.
This is not conservatism. It’s extremism. Radical MAGA forces are dividing Americans from one another, spreading lies and hate, and breaking democratic norms to enrich themselves and grab power.
How do we uphold decency? How do we bridge these divides and knit the rich tapestry of our country together? It starts by rebuilding the essential foundations for a better life for all.
Essentials for a Better Life for All
Essentials like safety. Just as safety has been our North Star to reopen schools and society during the pandemic, safety must be our North Star now to keep our communities and our schools safe from gun violence.
We must confront the toxic combination of hate and guns. Not by arming teachers but by getting weapons of war off our streets and out of our schools. Schools must be places where students are known and supported—with access to counselors and mental health professionals. Where everyone feels safe—no matter their race, religion, gender, gender identity, ability or disability.
That is why we fight for another essential, sustainable community schools, which help children and families get the healthcare, food assistance and other essentials they need, in one place. Community schools are hubs that sustain communities, help rebuild and deepen relationships within and beyond the school, and make it possible for teachers to teach and for kids to just be kids.
Let’s make sure that kids have ample recess and play in the school day. Music, arts and sports. Student government. Robotics. Clubs. That’s what creates joy. Frankly, joy is essential for all of us. And if you ever heard my wife preach, you’d hear her say, “Joy is an act of spiritual and political resistance.”
The AFT and our affiliates currently support more than 700 community schools nationwide, from Deer River, Minn., to Rome, N.Y., from Boston to Los Angeles. We have an ambitious goal: to expand our union’s reach to 2,500 community schools over the next five years. And because of our advocacy and the work of champions like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Appropriations Committee Chair Rosa DeLauro, federal funding for community schools just doubled.
Another essential is the knowledge and skills necessary to thrive in today’s world. That means a strong foundation in reading, math and science, and in practical life skills and critical thinking.
That’s why the AFT is launching our What Our Kids and Communities Need campaign. While extremist politicians are trying to drive a wedge between parents and teachers by banning books, censoring curriculum and politicizing public education, we’re focused on investing in public schools and the essential knowledge and skills students need. We’re focused on accelerating learning, not just catching up. We are fighting for the conditions students need to thrive, like state-of-the-art buildings, with good ventilation, smaller class sizes and mental health resources. And politicians, if you truly want to help kids thrive, you need to invest in this too.
Take reading. Reading not only affects all other academic achievement, it’s essential for well-being. It’s key to unlocking assignments in school and passions in life. Through our Reading Opens the World campaign, the AFT is giving 1 million books to children and school staff in communities across America, along with tips to promote literacy and a love of reading. To date, our members—you—have distributed more than 612,000 books in events hosted by 127 AFT locals and counting in 20 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
If you’ve been a part of our reading initiatives, you’ve seen kids bubble with excitement and joy as they pick out books to take home. So, if during this convention, we get requests that surpass 1 million books, we will find the funds to give away another million books next school year.
While we’re on the topic of reading, can we show some love to the superheroes of the stacks—our librarians?
And we are working on another essential—career and technical education. From cybersecurity to culinary arts, from aviation and auto and transit tech to healthcare and green jobs—high-quality CTE programs can equip young people with the knowledge and skills they need for all these careers. Nearly all of the young people in CTE programs graduate from high school, and many go to college. Why not have these broad choices for all our youth? They need pathways to affordable, accessible college and careers. If Germany can make internships and apprenticeships fundamental parts of their education systems, why can’t we? That’s why we are envisioning a new career and tech ed center in New Lexington, a rural community in southeast Ohio.
Of course, parents and educators must be partners. We don’t hope that happens; we make it happen. Like we did in Los Angeles, where Reclaim Our Schools LA—a coalition of parents, United Teachers Los Angeles and others—won millions of dollars in investments for the Black Student Achievement Plan and to dramatically expand community schools. And in Chicago, where parents supported the Chicago Teachers Union’s strike for the schools children deserve. In Florida and Texas, where families and educators are joining forces to fight attacks on LGBTQIA+ children. In New York City, where parents and the United Federation of Teachers have joined forces to lower class size. And here in Boston, the Boston Teachers Union and the Boston Education Justice Alliance have won school funding and stopped the state’s threatened district takeover.
We are deepening this work through the AFT Powerful Partnerships Institute, which supports family and community engagement. This year we are giving out 20 grants to AFT locals, totaling $1.5 million to further this work.
Of course, the people who do all of this are essential. But a recent Gallup poll found that K-12 professionals are the most burned-out workers in America, and college educators come in second. Teachers and school staff have been struggling for years with a lack of respect, inadequate resources, subpar compensation and endless paperwork. And then came COVID-19.
Before the pandemic, nearly 300,000 teachers left the profession each year—two-thirds before retirement age. COVID-19, culture wars, gun violence and other strains have made teachers’ already-tough jobs even harder, driving many out of the classroom. We have a crisis in the profession that makes all other professions possible.
Our union is not just decrying the problem, we’re finding solutions.
Earlier this year, the AFT created our Teacher and School Staff Shortage Task Force. Why do we have a teacher shortage? Because we have a shortage of respect for educators. A shortage of the professional working conditions that allow teachers and other staff to do their best for their students. We have a shortage of pay for what is arguably the most important job in the world. No wonder teachers’ job dissatisfaction is up 34 points since the start of the pandemic. The teacher shortage is the direct result of the shortage of conditions, respect and pay—and we are not going to fix the one without fixing the others.
Educators want what students need, but we need the time, tools and trust to do our jobs. There are four key areas that need to change: climate, culture, conditions and compensation. Don’t you just love those billionaires who talk about the virtues of markets but are stunningly silent when it comes to making educator salaries competitive? We’ll take up the task force recommendations during this convention.
Likewise, the AFT’s Healthcare Staffing Shortage Task Force is addressing the crisis in healthcare. Working conditions have deteriorated in many healthcare settings for years, if not decades. Violence against healthcare workers is a growing problem that is exacerbated by inadequate staffing. And the strain from the pandemic has created even more burnout, moral distress and impossible working conditions. This crisis threatens the safety of patients, the stability of the American healthcare system, and the physical, emotional and mental well-being of healthcare providers.
Nearly a third of bedside health professionals are contemplating leaving their profession. That number jumps to nearly half for intensive care unit nurses. If that doesn’t get officials to act, this terrible fact should: Some healthcare workers are twice as likely to die by suicide than the general public. This week you will also consider a resolution put forth by this task force. It calls for addressing staffing ratios and safe patient limits, violence in healthcare workplaces, and a ban on mandatory overtime.
We know that some staffing shortages are by design. No doubt some of you remember the anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, who said he didn’t want to abolish government, he just wanted it to be so small he could drown it in a bathtub. And now, rather than use the American Rescue Plan as it was intended to fund essential public services, some politicians are doing the opposite, which is why our public employees are fighting so hard to fund our future.
This leads me to another essential—the fact that everybody needs a raise. While the latest jobs report and the fact that gas prices are going down are hopeful signs, higher prices hurt—at the pump, in grocery stores and pretty much everywhere. Inflation is gripping the world. COVID-19 has shuttered factories, wreaked havoc on supply chains and made transporting goods much costlier. Oil gangsters like Vladimir Putin and price-gouging oil companies literally have us over a barrel—the top five oil companies in the United States reaped profits of $35 billion in the first quarter of 2022, 300 percent higher than the year before.
Higher prices hurt even more because the federal minimum wage has been just $7.25 since 2009. And so many workers, including many of our adjunct professors, food service workers and bus drivers, are not even able to afford life’s basic necessities. Higher prices hurt because Republicans in Congress keep blocking efforts to lower the cost of prescription drugs. They hurt because private equity firms are scooping up real estate—causing the price of rent and homes to skyrocket. And higher prices hurt because employers keep beating back unionization drives, leaving a lot of Americans feeling powerless.
There is power in a union. Two-thirds of Americans support unions, the highest level since 1965. And nearly half of nonunion workers say they would join a union in their workplace if they had the chance. Young workers are even more enthusiastic about unions. And Joe Biden is the most pro-union American president ever. But today, Americans are 11 times more likely to have an Amazon Prime membership than to have a union card.
This is the moment for our movement. Unions built the middle class in America, and we can rebuild it through the transformative power of collective bargaining. The essence of unionism is simple yet powerful: Together we can accomplish things that would be impossible alone.
That’s why we are supporting workers at Amazon and Starbucks who want a union. It’s why working people are joining the AFT—70 new units since our last convention two years ago: People who work in charter schools, in libraries, in higher education. It’s why the AFT and the American Association of University Professors just came together in a historic affiliation. And there is unprecedented interest in new organizing in healthcare, including among physicians.
As I look out in this room, I see a union that—despite everything that has been thrown at us—remains 1.7 million members strong. I see the people who, when the Supreme Court tried to destroy our union in the Janus decision, said “Hell no!” and “AFT yes!” I see the people building the fastest-growing union in healthcare and in higher education.
And I see even more than that. I see a union using our power as a force for good—for our members, our families and our communities; to create a more just and equitable society; and, now more than ever, to defend our democracy.
Defending Our Democracy
Let’s remember what democracy is. (Sorry—once a social studies teacher, always a social studies teacher.) Democracy is government of the people, by the people and for the people. It is the rule of the majority. It’s power vested in the people and exercised by them through free and fair elections and the peaceful transfer of power.
But—and I say this with great fear and sorrow—we may have seen our last free and fair election. Anti-democracy forces worked overtime in advance of the 2020 election to limit voting rights: purging eligible people from voter rolls, limiting who could vote by mail, reducing ballot drop-off locations, and closing polling places so that many voters had to wait hours to cast their ballots.
Despite these obstacles, the American people came out in record numbers in 2020 to vote—during a pandemic, no less. President Biden received the most votes ever cast for a U.S. presidential candidate, winning by more than 7 million votes.
Instead of celebrating this participation in our democracy, anti-democracy forces attacked it.
That was par for the course for President Trump. He attacked the free press, lied pathologically, winked at white nationalists and homegrown hate movements, threatened to imprison his political opponents, and openly invited foreign interference in our elections. And then Trump engaged in the “big lie”—that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him—even though he knew there was no evidence then or now to support this lie.
It’s shocking the lengths to which Trump and his allies went to keep power at all costs. Trump badgered election officials to “find him votes.” He leaned on the Justice Department to investigate baseless election fraud claims. He hatched a plot to send Vice President Mike Pence fraudulent electors. When none of that worked, on Jan. 6 he sought to lead an armed mob to the United States Capitol to prevent the peaceful transfer of power.
Our democracy held, but it is in danger.
Thanks to the “big lie,” 7 in 10 Republicans think the 2020 presidential election was stolen. And according to a poll released in June, more than one-quarter of U.S. residents feel it might “soon be necessary to take up arms” against the government.
And these same enemies of democracy who cast doubt on the integrity of the 2020 presidential election are now laying the groundwork to interfere with vote counting and manipulate the outcome of future elections.
We all read the polls that say inflation and rising prices are the most important issues for voters this November. Obviously, we need to elect leaders who will work to make the economy work for everyone.
But look at the plan released by Sen. Rick Scott, the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. If they win the Senate, they want to sunset every federal law every five years. What do you think that means for civil rights? For Medicare? Or Social Security?
Friends, our democracy is on the line, our economic security is on the line, and so are our freedoms. Look at the decisions handed down by the extremist majority on the Supreme Court—including the three justices Donald Trump appointed. They are legislating from the bench, overturning long-standing legal precedents and eviscerating rights.
If this isn’t a 10-alarm fire, I don’t know what is. We have one shot at changing this. We must vote in November as if our lives depend upon it, because they do. You held our institutions together during the pandemic. Our healthcare systems. Our public schools and colleges. Our public services. Now we need to hold our democracy together.
Elections matter. If we turn the keys back over to Mitch McConnell and the MAGA movement, the consequences will be catastrophic.
And elections matter at the state and local levels as well.
Remember Scott Walker? His first act as governor was to strip collective bargaining for state employees in Wisconsin. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker restored bargaining rights for Chicago’s teachers. Remember Chris Christie? As governor of New Jersey, he jeopardized public workers’ pensions, while current Gov. Phil Murphy ensured their solvency. In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom just funded healthcare for part-time college faculty. And in New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham launched a moonshot for public education.
Look at the difference elections make in school board races and budgets. Like this year when 99 percent of the school budgets in New York state were approved. And huge majorities of pro-public education candidates won their school board races in Montana, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and New York. No wonder Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is trying to buy school board seats, promising $250,000 to any school board candidate who takes his loyalty oath.
We know what to do: Organize. Mobilize. Just like we did after Janus. Just like we do in contract campaigns. Like we did in the 2020 elections.
We are tired. No, we are exhausted. But if we don’t do it, it ain’t gonna happen. Remember, we are here for a reason.
We have to knock on doors. Talk to and listen to people. Organize and mobilize around the issues that keep people up at night. We’ve got to elect allies who share our goals.
What happens if we don’t? Walter Reuther, the legendary president of the United Auto Workers, often reminded people that what the labor movement wins at the bargaining table can be taken away at the ballot box. Everything is at risk: our freedoms, our democracy, our basic economic safety net.
How do we turn our aspirations in action, into things that make life better for people? We vote. We march—and we vote. We mourn—and we vote. We donate—and we vote. We make good trouble—and we vote. What do we do? Vote!
I’ve talked a lot about the essentials necessary for a better life for all. I want to conclude with what I believe is most essential of all—acknowledging the humanity of all people, not just the folks we are comfortable with.
Everyone has been vulnerable in their lives. As a gay teenager, that feeling of vulnerability rarely left me. And when I realized who I was, I realized I didn’t just feel vulnerable, I was vulnerable. And I felt completely, terrifyingly alone. We have all felt vulnerable in some way, especially during this challenging time.
But for some people, vulnerability is a constant: The mom whose heart races every time her Black son goes out at night. The family that fears any knock at the door could be immigration agents coming to separate them. People who have lost their jobs, or who work multiple jobs—and still never have enough. People who are immunocompromised, for whom the “Great Unmasking” brings fear, not freedom.
So maybe my vulnerability makes it easier for me to see the humanity of the gay teacher in Kentucky who left the profession he loves because of who he loves. Maybe it’s easier for me to relate to the trans kids who some people hate just because they are being who they are. I know change can be uncomfortable, but we’ve all been vulnerable. It’s a terrible feeling. And I hope that no one would want anyone else to feel that, just for being who they are.
We all want to be seen; I am asking us to see one other.
We are in a race between hope and fear, between decency and cruelty, between the survival of democracy and the rise of autocracy. And that is why we must act. As the author and activist Grace Paley said, “The only recognizable feature of hope is action.”
We act every time we encourage someone to vote. We act every time we stand up for what our students need. We act when we all stand together, so none of us feels alone. We act when we step up for working people and their right to a union. We act when we defend the very survival of American democracy.
We’ve been through a lot. This summer, recharge, relax, reconnect. And then act.
This is a moment to stand up and be counted. To live our convictions. To engage, not withdraw. No matter how tired or how frustrated we are, we cannot be bystanders.
We have been put here for such a time as this. We are here for a reason: To heal. To help. To teach. To vote and get out the vote. To fight for justice and dignity, for our children and our country, for our democracy and our freedoms. And that way we will achieve a better life for all.
Thank you for all you do.