Hope in darkness
Remarks by AFT president Randi Weingarten
AFT 2018 Convention
July 13, 2018
When you hear Fred, it’s clear: Teachers weren’t walking out on our students. We were walking out for our students—creating a human shield for the public schools they deserve; caring, fighting and showing up; creating hope in darkness. And we need that in these most surreal of times.
- TWO MOMENTS.
There has been no shortage of lows—or highs—these last couple of months. In one moment you can be saying, “What the heck?!” And the next, “Heck yeah!” (That’s the sanitized version—because my swear jar is getting pretty full this year.)
My “What the heck” moment was Feb. 26. I was at the Supreme Court, listening to the oral arguments in Janus v. ASFCME. Bruce Rauner, the anti-union Illinois governor who brought the case, was there, as was Betsy DeVos, who snuck in. The oral arguments made it crystal clear what the right-wing supporters of this case want. And the right-wing justices made it equally clear they are willing accomplices.
In one exchange between Justice Kennedy and David Frederick, the lawyer for AFSCME, Kennedy asked if unions would have less political influence if AFSCME lost the case. Frederick responded that, if the Janus supporters prevailed, he believed unions would have less political influence. To which Kennedy replied, “Isn’t that the end of this case?” Then, Justice Alito lectured Frederick about the First Amendment, asserting that collective bargaining in the public sector violates freedom of speech.
Our lawyer again pushed back, but the one-two punch had been thrown. The justices were attacking the two surest pathways working people have to a better life: the bargaining table and the ballot box. And these right-wing judges were trying to take both away, in one fell swoop.
Well, we know their decision now, and Justice Kagan’s dissent nailed it: Her five conservative colleagues were “weaponizing the First Amendment,” perverting it from its intended purpose of securing the political freedom necessary for democracy—just as Justice Kennedy did in Citizens United, equating unlimited corporate political donations with protected speech. Why would those justices, as Kagan put it, “overthrow a decision entrenched in this Nation’s law and its economic life for over 40 years”? Because the court’s right-wing 5-4 majority wants to destroy unions and, with them, the aspirations and dreams of working folks.
And then, just two weeks later: March 6, Charleston, W.Va; the start of the recent school walkouts.
I arrived at Fred’s high school to find teachers, parents, students and others picketing, many for the first time ever. And at the state Capitol in Charleston, educators were in the streets, in a sea of red and blue T-shirts and signs. “This is what democracy looks like.”
Democracy looked like students and school aides, teachers and bus drivers, children and parents, standing in solidarity. Democracy sounded like defiant chants of “55 strong” and “55 united” from voices representing each of the 55 school districts in West Virginia. It sounded like students lobbying their representatives, using the skills their teachers taught them to make the case for why educators deserve better. And democracy even tasted like something: pizza.
Seven hundred pizzas to be exact, courtesy of California educators who understood that, while unity can feed the soul, you still need something in your stomach. So Lita Blanc, the former president of the United Educators of San Francisco, started a GoFundMe campaign to feed her brothers and sisters 2,500 miles away (#union). Oh, and she made sure they ordered the pizzas from Husson’s, a local family business.
Nine days later, still strong, still united, but nervous, the West Virginia House of Delegates had agreed to honor the deal the governor made with our unions, but nobody knew what the Republican-controlled Senate would do. And some state senators were playing hardball, threatening that West Virginians would face painful cuts if lawmakers conceded to educators’ demands. But the public support was strong and growing—support from clergy and coal miners and our students. And the human shield worked; the Senate agreed. The moratorium on health insurance costs would hold, and teachers would be getting a 5 percent raise. And so would state employees. That was one heck of a “Heck yeah!” moment.
Throughout the capitol, you heard: “West Virginia first! Oklahoma next!” Educators saw that, together, we could accomplish what would be impossible alone. And that spirit of solidarity spread from red state to blue state to territory: from West Virginia to Arizona, Colorado to California, Pennsylvania to Puerto Rico.
Like so much of the recent activism, the teacher walkouts are stoking a movement for social justice, for workers’ rights, for women’s rights, for civil rights and children’s rights, for decent healthcare and well-funded public schools, for safety—on the streets and in our schools. People acting together and accomplishing together what individuals can’t do on their own, and doing it in places that no one predicted.
And that makes us a huge target. Right-wing groups and their wealthy allies want us gone, because unions are often the only organized force challenging their enormous power in politics and the economy. It’s part of their trifecta strategy: suppress the vote, privatize public education and eliminate unions—the three ways working folks have any agency, any real power in America.
They know that working people gain strength in numbers. And they know working people do better when they join together in unions. So the right wing is doing everything they can to stop us, so people will have to fend for themselves.
That is why, in the days since the Janus decision, right-wing billionaires have spent millions of dollars, literally millions, on opt-out campaigns and lawsuits. The Mackinac Center, for example, funded by the Koch brothers and Betsy DeVos, is spamming every educator in nearly a dozen states on their school email accounts.
And speaking of Secretary DeVos, I think it’s safe to say the whole country now knows what we knew the day her nomination was announced: that Betsy DeVos is the worst secretary of education ever.
Look at how the Freedom Foundation tries to pick off union members in Washington state: “Give yourself a raise.…” Give me a break. You know who’s paying for this? The American Legislative Exchange Council and the Walton Foundation, among others—the same groups that fight for huge tax cuts for the rich that end up decimating education funding, so students get scraps and many school employees can barely scrape by; the same groups that go after our pensions and wages and due process and on and on and on. Spare me the hypocrisy.
But you know what? Where our opponents have waged their bare-knuckle opt-out campaigns, the stories of drops have been few and far between. We have seen just the opposite: members recommitting and new members joining. Over and over members are sticking with their union.
The day the Janus decision came down, 2,400 faculty at Oregon State University joined our AFT and American Association of University Professors joint local. That same day, our nurses at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center won a contract that boosts salaries and will help prevent dangerous fatigue for nurses. And in the first three hours after the Professional Staff Congress announced the Janus decision, the union received 238 completed online membership applications. And they just kept coming.
Today, one of our locals is not here because it’s on strike. Nurses at the University of Vermont Medical Center are on a two-day strike for fair wages and safe conditions. We’ll show our support in a solidarity action at the end of this session.
Working people see that, through their union, they can accomplish together what would be impossible on their own. That’s why the AFT is growing. And today, your union has 1,755,000 members, the highest number ever.
Caring, fighting, showing up.
- MORE WVA, LESS SCOTUS
How many of you were with us for the AFT TEACH conference, way back in 2015? If you were, I introduced you to this formula—for so-called value-added measurement. Some officials claimed it’s the formula for teacher quality. Except, it isn’t. It’s really about trying to strip teachers’ professional latitude from the equation. It’s about reducing students to a test score and teachers to an algorithm, to create a pretext to starve and privatize public schools.
The good news is that, because of our work, the last administration and Congress replaced No Child Left Behind with a new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act. And ESSA prohibits the secretary of education from mandating the use of student test scores in teacher evaluation. That has now helped our affiliates do the same in Houston; in New Mexico; in Ohio, where we’re waiting for Gov. Kasich’s signature; and we’re “this close” in New York.
So they have their formula, but we have one too. It’s a little more accessible and a lot more aspirational: (ME+CI)I = A BETTER LIFE. That is, member engagement + community involvement around issues that matter is the pathway to a better life.
- Member Engagement
I taught social studies, not math, so my proof uses words, not numbers.
First, member engagement: My epiphany wasn’t in a union hall, but a hospital room. My cousin, who is a teacher on Long Island, was visiting my dad, who was in the ICU.
(He’s on the mend now, thanks to amazing nurses and physical therapists and occupational therapists.) We were talking about my cousin’s local, and, while this may be hard to believe, we’d never really talked “union” before. She told me that, at a recent meeting, her local president held up two documents: their contract and a piece of paper from Texas.
Their contract had provisions the union had negotiated—salary scales and health benefits, and clauses pertaining to working conditions, professionalism and fairness. The other piece of paper had a salary, but not much else except the clause that one could be fired for any reason at any time. And the union president asked them: Which do you want?
As my cousin Jen was speaking, I remembered what Louis Malfaro, the president of Texas AFT, said to members of my home local in New York City, the United Federation of Teachers, last year at its spring conference. Louis said that his members wanted to be more like New York; they didn’t want New York to be more like Texas. Everyone at my cousin’s union meeting signed a recommit card.
But the story doesn’t end there. My cousin then volunteered that she’s becoming involved in her local. She’s having one-to-one conversations with newer educators, explaining how we could lose everything we built.
That’s when I teared up, because in that story I saw her transformation. We weren’t just talking union. She was telling me how she felt empowered and what she was doing, because of the union.
Engaging members was central to winning great new contracts for K-12 members here in Pittsburgh, in San Francisco, in Washington, D.C., and in Boston, and for state workers in New York and Maryland. And the breakthroughs continue—for adjunct professors at Temple University in Philadelphia, lecturers in Michigan, and the whole State University of New York system. It’s how Oregon graduate workers, and now SUNY’s United University Professions and the UFT in New York City, have negotiated landmark parental leave provisions.
It’s why 25,000 teachers and public employees in Montana came together to form the newly unified Montana Federation of Public Employees. And Education Minnesota has organized 17 new units since our last convention, including PSRP and charter units. And it’s why the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, the elected collective bargaining agent for teachers in Puerto Rico, affiliated with the AFT last August.
Members’ engagement in their union is how we accomplish together what would be impossible on our own.
It’s members like Karen Murphy, the head custodian in a Jefferson County, Ala., elementary school, who is part of the AFT Teacher Leaders Program. Karen researched whether using green products in place of chemical cleaners would reduce asthma-related absenteeism—and found that it did. Karen’s union gave her that opportunity to engage, and she seized it.
It’s members who come to the AFT student debt clinics seeking relief from the crushing weight of student loans. At one clinic, a member saved $600 on her monthly payment. She said it was the biggest raise she’d ever gotten. You better believe that connects members to their union.
You see that same engagement throughout our union—3,700 new members in the Oregon School Employees Association. One hundred percent recommitment to the union in Manhattan, Ill., and in Mount Pleasant, N.Y. One hundred percent in Cleveland, Ohio—and Cleveland, Minn. From Yakima, Wash., in the West to the Winchester, Conn., paraprofessionals in the East, and so many AFT local unions in between (Is Toledo in the house?), members are sticking with their union.
In fact, 530,000 members in the AFT have recommitted just since January. Every recommit is a message to the dark-money groups trying to crush us: Take a hike. And every time we sign up a new member, we are telling Betsy DeVos: There’s something you should be more afraid of than grizzlies.
- Community Involvement Around Issues that Really Matter
When one-third of Americans were union members, we were community. There are fewer union members today, but not fewer natural allies.
The potential is enormous when unions partner with communities around issues that really matter: Safe communities and welcoming, well-funded public schools. Affordable healthcare and higher education, good wages, a secure retirement, and a voice at work and in our democracy. Fighting for decency and fairness, and against hatred and bigotry; for family values and a better America. These issues really matter—to us and to all Americans.
Remember how the Oklahoma teacher talking about using 40-year-old textbooks captured the anger of the country? And the kids in Baltimore shivering in unheated classrooms last winter? Those are not anomalies—ask any of our locals involved with the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, our community education partnership that has been fighting this austerity for years. They’re the result of the disinvestment that deepened in the recession and continued with tax cuts for the rich.
Make no mistake: The Trump tax scam for the rich made GOP donors really happy. What did corporate America do with its windfall? Not wage hikes that workers need, but a record number of stock buybacks that investors demanded. And, because of these tax cuts, revenue is now unavailable to schools, healthcare, infrastructure and the public services that keep our communities safe and livable.
And it’s not just about family economics. It’s about families—period.
At the recent Families Belong Together rallies in hundreds of cities, people from every walk of life rose up against the Trump administration’s inhumane family separation policies. Even though it was a million degrees in Boston, where I marched with the Boston Teachers Union and AFT Massachusetts, teachers, nurses, students, strollers and dogs were out in force; there was the same passion and diversity I saw at the women’s marches and the school walkouts.
And while the president has made immigration a wedge issue, we know that children belong with parents, and that Dreamers serve in classrooms and hospitals and other places where they’re needed. And many are AFT members. We’ve shown up to support them on the border, in Congress and at the United Nations. And we will continue to show up to defend asylum seekers, Dreamers—and our values.
When the federal government failed the people of Puerto Rico, the AFT was there. AFT nurses traveled to the island two weeks after Hurricane Maria, caring for people who had seen few, if any, rescue workers since the hurricane hit. We saw dehydrated children and devastated homes. Desperation reigned. Members like you made generous donations to send the first of what is now nearly 100,000 water filters to Puerto Rico through Operation Agua. And now, the AFT is working hand in hand with AMPR to ensure that Puerto Ricans don’t get the shaft in the island’s financial crisis, including fighting massive school closures and unregulated charterization. If anyone questions whether public schools matter to families in Puerto Rico, this fantastic chorus from Ponce provides the answer.
When Donald Trump and the GOP tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and with it the protections for people with pre-existing conditions, AFT members were in the streets, on the phones and in the faces of members of Congress, not letting up until the ACA repeal was defeated. And as the Trump administration still fixates on sabotaging Obamacare, rather than solving the opioid crisis or abating escalating drug costs, we’ll keep at it.
And again this year, when students and their teachers went to school in Parkland, Fla., Great Mills, Md., and Santa Fe, Texas, and didn’t come home because of gun violence, what did the GOP Congress do? Even under tremendous public pressure led by a generation of amazing high school students, they stuck to the National Rifle Association playbook: They proposed arming teachers, because their answer to gun violence is always more guns.
And what did we do? Of course, we called them out on their ludicrous and dangerous “solution.” But we did more: We offered sensible security and mental health proposals like the red flag laws to protect children and educators. We asked our pension trustees to urge investment managers to divest guns from their portfolios. And when some, like Wells Fargo, wouldn’t even engage with us, we decided that if they won’t put kids’ lives over the NRA, then they don’t deserve our business.
And after the Parkland shootings, our Newtown, Conn., members were there to support our Broward, Fla., members. Thank you, Tom Kuroski and Anna Fusco, the leaders of those two locals. In the wake of unspeakable horror, you have dedicated yourselves to healing your communities and preventing this carnage from happening elsewhere.
Speaking of safety, we cannot be silent about the increasing polarization and profiling in our country based upon race or religion. After 9/11, the then-president of the United States made it clear that Muslims were welcome here; now, we have a president who wants to ban them. And when we talk about race, it’s more than just a president who equates neo-Nazis with people who protested their vile acts in Charlottesville, or his disrespect of members of Congress like Maxine Waters and Frederica Wilson. This isn’t dog whistling, it’s outright race-baiting.
We must also recognize the climate it creates—a climate where the police are called on people waiting for a meeting at Starbucks or leaving an Airbnb rental, barbecuing in California, golfing in Pennsylvania; on children mowing a lawn in Ohio and swimming in North Carolina.
These are not emergencies. These are not crime scenes. This is life in America. Ask yourself: Would the police be called if it were a white person in these situations? We know the answer, and we cannot be silent.
These fights are our fights—as is fighting against ruthless school closures in Chicago and school privatization in Los Angeles, demanding safe nurse staffing levels in New Jersey and the right to read in Detroit, working to keep the Alcoa aluminum plant open in Massena, N.Y., revitalizing McDowell County, W.Va., and using our pension funds to create jobs and rebuild our nation’s broken infrastructure. We’ve stood with communities, and communities have stood with us.
That is how community and our labor movement become one again. It comes back to our formula: Member engagement + community involvement around issues that matter = a better life. A life that we create by caring, fighting, showing up and voting.
- BALLOT BOX
Look, I understand why a lot of Americans voted for Donald Trump. Ironically, it was for some of the same reasons most Americans didn’t vote for him. The economy wasn’t working for them. Wages had stagnated. Retirement security had tanked. Globalization and automation had changed the world. He promised to shake things up. I don’t blame the people who voted for him. I blame Trump for exploiting their fears.
We are a year and a half into this presidency, and we have cause for great concern. This state of affairs is not normal. I cannot be silent, and neither can you.
When the president of the United States refuses to condemn white nationalism and calls neo-Nazis “very fine people,” can we be silent? When the president describes immigrants as “animals,” “rapists” and “criminals,” can we be silent? When Trump boasts about preying on women and talks about them with contempt, can we be silent? When immigrant children are torn from their parents’ arms, can we be silent? When Trump uses the power of his office—and his Twitter feed—to bully and harass people, and when he incites violence by his supporters, we cannot and we will not be silent.
We care about what our children are witnessing every day in the chaos, divisiveness and incivility stoked by this man. Beyond demanding decency, we must defend democracy at this most crucial moment for American democracy since the rise of fascism and authoritarianism in the 1930s.
Don’t forget, Donald Trump called for his political opponent to be locked up. He didn’t just try to publicly brush off Russia’s interference in our elections, he pressured law enforcement to take the heat off him in investigations into possible collusion and fired the head of the FBI because of “the Russia thing.” He’s alienating the country’s closest allies and cozying up to dictators and despots. The president of the United States of America has recklessly called news media “fake news,” the “lowest form of life” and the “enemy of the people.”
And now Trump has nominated a Supreme Court justice who believes that presidents should be neither subpoenaed nor indicted, and whom the right wing is cheering on, hoping Judge Kavanaugh will be the fifth vote to reliably strike down laws they despise, like the ACA’s protection of people with pre-existing conditions.
All of which is why the 2018 elections are so urgent.
It’s not simply a fight for fairness or for the policies we champion for working folks and their families. These elections won’t just determine whether Republicans or Democrats prevail, but whether cruelty or decency prevails. We must be a check and balance for our democracy and for a society that is safe, welcoming and sane.
And America’s labor movement is central to defending democracy. Authoritarian governments invariably attack unions, seeking to undermine them, because unions have always been in the forefront of the fight for democracy. We’ve seen this in our own lifetimes, as unions led the battle for democracy in communist Poland, in Pinochet’s fascist Chile and during apartheid in South Africa.
We didn’t ask for this moment in time. In fact, we did everything we could to ensure a different outcome in 2016. Yet here we are. Brothers and sisters, these are the stakes right now. We cannot and we will not be silent.
The good news is that we are not silent. We have become an activist nation. People see that despair is not a strategy, and that—together—these fights are winnable.
Seemingly, every weekend, America is rallying—for black lives and against white supremacy, for diversity and tolerance and against discrimination of all kinds, for safe schools and streets, for affordable healthcare and higher wages, for well-funded schools and public services. The next front in our fight, and it is no exaggeration, is for our democracy.
So when it comes to November 2018, we must be together and we must be all-in, which is why I am so glad that both Secretary Clinton and Sen. Sanders are with us at this convention.
Our members feel the urgency. This year, nearly 300 of your fellow AFT members aren’t just casting their ballots—they’re on the ballot. Walkouts are turning into walk-ins to the voting booth. AFT members and alumni are running for governor of Michigan, for Congress and for state and local legislative races. They’re running for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, the Utah House of Representatives, the West Virginia House of Delegates, and the West Hartford (Conn.) Town Council, and for dozens of school boards.
And we need them to win. New York State United Teachers member John Mannion’s race could determine control of the New York state Senate. And we cannot take our eyes off the need to take back the majorities in both houses of Congress.
Donald Trump has made his choices. To challenge our norms, our institutions, our very democracy. Now, it’s time for us to make our choices.
IX. CONCLUSION: HOPE IN DARKNESS
A decade ago, you gave me the honor of leading this union I love. And what a decade it’s been. It gave us President Obama, and President Trump. Waiting for Superman, and true superheroes. Testing obsession, and mass mobilization. Supreme Court decisions like Janus, and ones like the case recognizing the right to marry for people like myself who never in our lifetimes thought we could or would.
We are in a battle for the soul of our nation. It’s terrifying, but we have confronted dreadful times before: slavery and the Civil War, two world wars, the Great Depression, Jim Crow and lynchings, Native Americans forced onto reservations, Japanese-Americans confined to internment camps.
But I come down on the side of hope. Because of you, we bring hope in the darkness.
America can and does change. Yes, power concedes nothing without a demand, as Frederick Douglass taught us, and we have been fighting powerful forces for centuries—millennia, in the case of Moses, who was the first labor organizer, fighting for the emancipation out of Egypt. Mother Jones fought another West Virginia battle, that time for coal miners, and the freedom riders fought Jim Crow. The arc of the universe does bend toward justice—but not on its own. It bends because people like you and me put our hands on it and bend it.
So now it’s our turn. This is on us. This is our moment. This is our movement.
There are very few times in life you can look back and say that because of our movement, our actions, our human shield, we have turned back cruelty and created decency. That we have exercised all our muscles to bend that arc. That we have turned back darkness into hope.