The 2014 edition of the Los Angeles AFT Convention will wrap up in few hours as the 3,000 delegates catch flights.
What I love most about these biannual conventions is the chance to meet colleagues from locals across the country. At a reception last night I chatted with a Boston teacher: how do you mobilize retirees to work on issues not related to retirement? A teacher from a local on the Texas-Mexico border was interested in involving parents, Spanish-speaking parents who may be undocumented, how do you teach the parents to help their kids outside of school? A rising star from St Paul, who, in the midst of a frigid winter, went to the brink of a strike, engaged parents and community in the negotiating process, and emerged with a contract.
Teacher leaders from Germany and Poland struggling with teachers adapting to the influx of students from the Balkans: creating a bi-lingual education structure.
The AFT continues to grow, last year the 46,000 member National Federation of Nurses merged with the AFT, and nurses and healthcare professionals continue to join the union. We may sometimes forget that the healthcare system is profit-driven and one way to save money is to skimp on both the numbers of nurses as well as overload them with duties endangering patients.
Colleges and universities are plagued by the reliance on what is called contingent staff, adjuncts who teach a few classes for low wages and commonly no benefits. How do you create strategies to improve the working conditions of part time staff? The same high-stakes regimen that has been imposed on teachers is coming to colleges. Using growth on student tests to assess the teacher and tracing the teacher score back to the college and using the score to assess the success, or lack thereof, of the college program. High-stakes testing for all.
The convention is a series of guest speakers, videos, awards to a range of members (Watch all or a few of the 22 videos here) and debating the resolutions submitted by the Executive Council and locals. The resolutions are sent to thirteen committees, delegates can choose to attend any committee, they meet at the same time, debate ensues, and the committees vote “concurrence” or “non-concurrence,” select the top three resolutions that go to the floor for debate.
The debate on the lengthy, nuanced resolution on the Common Core was extensive, and, at times, passionate. For 45 minutes delegate after delegate “testified,” over this issue, clearly, there is a rift in the ranks. For some, mostly from the Chicago Teachers Union, the Common Core is an abomination, for others, from around the country; the problem is the implementation and the high-stakes testing component.
Weingarten, serving as the chair, was extremely generous in allowing every voice, at times, with an audience wanting to get on with the next order of business. Of the many amendments offered from the floor some clarified and strengthened the intent of the resolutions while others were “wordsmithing,” arguing style over substance.
One of the more fascinating announcements was the creation of Democrats for Public Education, led by Donna Brazile, who is a great speaker. Back in the early Obama days Joe Williams, a former NY Daily News reporter founded Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), an organization which became the voice of the Obama-Duncan administration, for choice (aka charter schools), high-stakes testing, Race to the Top and anti-tenure, the supporters included democrats who in the liberal/progressive wing of the party.
The new organization (DFPE) will force Democrats to make choices – choices which will have consequences at the ballot box.
Once upon a time the AFT was sharply divided internally, on virtually every resolution the Progressive Caucus was on one side and the opposition on the other. Supporters of one side or another raced to microphones, the debate was ofttimes personal as this or that resolution passed or failed.
Weingarten has changed the culture, while a handful of candidates ran against the Weingarten slate the tent of now broad enough to encompass a wide range of opinions. Karen Lewis of the Chicago Teachers Union and Barbara Bowen of the PSC (CUNY) may disagree with Weingarten on Common Core or the role of the AFT in funding local elections, the disagreements are public and do not fray relationships.
For some delegates the position on the Common Core was the major issue at the convention for me the major issue was building for the 2014 Congressional elections. If the Republicans maintain the House and gain control of the Senate the only person standing in the way of the total erosion of labor rights will be the lame duck president.
An intense few days – many, many wonderful conversations, the passion and the dedication of teacher (and nurse) unionists are heartwarming, and, the fight is just beginning. How do you convince teachers that in spite the disappointments of the last six years of the Obama administration the November elections are crucial and they must dedicate their time and dollars?
In the words of Langston Hughes,
Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.