Teachers celebrate union milestone: 1.5 million members

AFTRandiPatti

SEATTLE-Delegates to the American Federation of Teachers 81st biennial convention here danced in the aisles July 9 celebrating their union surpassing 1.5 million members including almost 70,000 new members organized in the past year.

AFT President Randi Weingarten hailed the victory telling the 3,000 delegates, "More and more people who work in schools, colleges, and universities, health facilities and government buildings want a union to provide members with a voice, support and resources."

She then pulled AFT Vice President Lorretta Johnson of Baltimore and Secretary-Treasurer Antonia Cortese from their seats and led the delegates in dancing for joy.

The milestone reflected growth in all of the AFT's divisions, and is especially significant given the tough economic conditions, and open warfare instigated by the Republican right who scapegoat teachers and their unions for the crisis in public education.

But that does not include Washington State's Democratic Senator Patty Murray, now locked in a tough reelection fight. She told the convention she was a classroom teacher, a PTA leader and a mother drawn into politics many years ago when she went to the state capital, Olympia, to demand the legislature restore funds for a pre-school program her children were enrolled in. A legislator told her there is nothing she can do.

"You're just a mom in tennis shoes," the lawmaker told her.

She returned home and organized 13,000 other angry "moms in tennis shoes" to descend on Olympia. Money for the pre-school program was restored.

It has been her slogan ever since. She drew strong applause, telling the delegates she was returning to the nation's capital to fight for Senate passage of a bill that provides $10 billion to avert teacher layoffs so far blocked by Republicans.

She said she is proud that she fought to incorporate $100 billion in President Obama's first economic stimulus to "save or create 300,000 education jobs."

She added, "It has made a difference. It is important. But we know it is not enough."

Earlier, Weingarten introduced AFT leaders from across the nation who have led struggles to defend public education and other public services threatened with layoffs, furloughs, benefit cuts, and privatization.

The AFT stands ready, she said, to support genuine reform but not when it is used as a cover for privatization and a broadside attack on teachers and their unions.

"We will work with anyone who offers us an open door and an open mind," she said. "But the bottom line, we're not going to just sit still and be a punching bag. We're not going to be bullied into silence."

The delegates cheered when she introduced Jane Sessums, president of the Central Falls Teachers Union in Rhode Island who led the fight that won reinstatement of the 89 teachers and paras fired en masse last April.

No White House spokesperson will speak at this convention and none spoke at the National Education Association Delegate Assembly in New Orleans the July 4 weekend, reflecting the anger of classroom teachers at Obama administration support for that mass firing.

Sessums told the crowd, "It was critical that we had a strong response and the AFT was there for us."

The lesson of the Central Falls debacle, she said, is that punishing teachers "is not the answer" to problems in America's educational system.

Dennis Kelly, president of United Educators of San Francisco said 1,100 teachers in his AFT local received layoff notices in California's budget crisis. They launched a fight back under the slogan, "Put Children First" with marches and rallies. Parents launched a "Pink Hearts Not Pink Slips" campaign. The coalition met with the superintendent of schools.

"We saw our newspaper ad on his desk," Kelly said. "We knew we had gotten our message across when we saw that ad."

Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association, a merged AFT-NEA union of 140,000 members praised union teachers for generating massive "public pressure" that persuaded then-Republican Governor Charlie Crist to veto a union-busting "merit pay" bill.

"During this campaign, we signed up 1,000 new members," he said.

Weingarten introduced Chad Adams, a young teacher at a Chicago charter school. Charter school organizing is a recent initiative of the AFT.

"The teachers at the school decided we needed a union and we approached the AFT," Adams said.

With the help of AFT Local 1, they succeeded in winning union recognition, he said, a vast new field for union organizing.

Weingarten pointed out that it was Adams first AFT convention.

The crowd gave him a standing ovation.

Photo: AFT President Randi Weingarten, left, stands with Washington Senator Patty Murray. (Tim Wheeler/PW)

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