AFT president Randi Weingarten shares message of unity with PEF Convention delegates
BY KATE MOSTACCIO
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, in her keynote speech to the delegates at the 41st Annual PEF Convention in Albany, praised PEF members for the work they do and stressed the importance of continued vigilance and unity as attacks on the labor movement continue.
AFT is one of PEF’s two international union affiliates.
“First and foremost, I want to say thank you to PEF,” Weingarten said, speaking via video conference after the death of a family member. PEF members — nurses, scientists, lawyers, teachers, engineers, and so many more — provide vital services to the community, she said. “The work we do in the community is making a difference in the lives of people. That’s who PEF is.”
Over the past year, Weingarten said she has watched PEF go through an incredible journey. “The union is not simply a place to challenge or raise concerns,” she said. “Together we are the vehicle by which we make a better community. There is nothing else in America that does it like a union.
“That is why they hate us so much,” she said of anti-labor forces.
Two weeks after Justice Neil Gorsuch was appointed to the Supreme Court, Weingarten said, the court “eviscerated” a decades-long precedent with the split decision in Janus v. AFSCME that eliminated the ability of public-sector labor unions to collect fees from non-union members — to pay their “fair share.”
“That was all eviscerated within two weeks of his appointment,” she said. “They will do anything to kill the union movement.”
They are afraid of unions because the union movement gives regular people power, she said. “When we unify, we can actually make possible what is impossible to do alone.”
She pointed to the current United Automobile Workers strike as evidence of strength in unity. “They [GM] are making gazillions of dollars but they do not want to give people who have given them so much to keep the community going a fair wage,” she said.
Unions are fighting the crushing student debt crisis, working to ensure affordable health care for their members, and crusading for fair wages for all workers, she said. PEF has campaigned for people such as Tony Otto, who the state Office for People with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD) had sought to remove from his long-time home. PEF worked to bring books to youth at the Industry Residential Center and the Rochester Multi-Community Services Office.
“The action that PEF is doing is a microcosm of what we’re doing around the country,” Weingarten said. “Fighting for services people need.”
Obstacles lie ahead for PEF and all labor unions standing up for their members’ needs.
“The biggest challenge we have is what happens in 2020,” Weingarten said, adding that it is not a normal election and there is hate and racism in the air. She recalled the El Paso Walmart shooting as an example. “[This election is about] ensuring that we have a democracy that works. An economy that works,” she said. “No one can sit on the sidelines. We need to be engaged and involved to the likes we’ve never been … We can fight back in 2020 if we stay together.”
Weingarten took questions from the convention floor. Delegate Martin Robinson told her he had met her 17 years ago at the United Federation of Teachers. “It was my first exposure to unionism,” he said. “You really inspired me to get involved in the union movement. Thank you for that.”
A delegate from PEF Region 1 asked how union leaders can engage with younger members who are swayed by what they see online. “It’s frustrating to tell them, ‘Don’t believe everything you see,’ ” he said.
Weingarten said technology can have amazing advantages — such as her video conference — but it can’t compare to something she learned early on in her teaching career. “Make sure you know peoples’ names,” she said. “Look your kids in the face and you see them and they see you. Take people for who they are and where they are, as opposed to talking over each other. Young people were promised everything would be better, but look what we’re leaving them.”
To engage the young, she said unions must connect with them. “We have to take on the issues and values that young people bring to the table,” she said. “Figure out, together, how we can solve these things. What do they want the union to fight for?”
AFT has taken on student loan issues, important to many young and older members, filing a lawsuit against student loan servicer, Navient, and holding debt clinics. “This is something where people see themselves in the union,” she said.
A teacher at Rockland Children’s Psychiatric Center asked that AFT look into aligning pay for those state educators with their teaching counterparts in other sectors.
Weingarten said NYSUT and PEF should jointly look into the issue. “Let’s try to do some work between NYSUT and PEF to see if we can lift up the conditions,” she said. “You’re doing God’s work and you need more support and higher pay.”
In a nod to baseball, Weingarten sent a message for the coming year.
“We are basically in the fourth inning of Janus,” she said. “We are ahead by a run or two, but there are still several more innings and they have a very good pitcher on the other side. But we have very good batters, our members. … We stared it in the face and we’re winning the first few rounds.”
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