AFT’s Answer to Attacks on Public Education, Public Services: “Solution-Driven Unionism”

AFT President Randi Weingarten kicked off the American Federation of Teachers national convention in Detroit on Friday with a call for “solution-driven unionism” that answers ongoing attacks on public education and public-sector workers with problem-solving policy initiatives of our own.

“We need to act in innovative, creative, and new ways—simultaneously refuting our critics, advancing our values, connecting with community and proposing solutions. That’s solution-drive unionism,” said Weingarten.

In her keynote, Weingarten said that America’s workers are embattled—severe budget cuts jeopardize public education, health care and other critical services; families have lost more than 30 percent of their wealth during the economic crisis; and more than 100 bills have been introduced in state legislatures to demonize and attack public employees and undermine public services.

AFT has fought back hard and well for public education and public employees against these attacks, but the most effective counter to these threats “focuses on solving problems, not on winning arguments,” Weingarten said. She cited numerous examples of this problem-solving approach, which “unites those we represent with those we serve, and in so doing…ensures that we don’t merely survive, but…succeed”:

• Partnering with school districts in places such as New Haven to overhaul teacher development and evaluation and turn around low-performing schools;
• Launching Share My Lesson with the British corporation TES Connect, which will become the largest online community for teachers to share resources and best practices;
• Mitigating the impact that poverty and other out-of-school factors have on students in places like Cincinnati by offering wraparound services, including health and mental health services, tutoring, counseling, and after-school programs;
• Forming a diverse partnership in McDowell County, West Virginia, the eighth-poorest county in the United States, focused not just on improving schools, but also on creating jobs, expanding infrastructure and affordable housing, and improving transportation, recreation, housing, healthcare and social services;
• Working with First Book in Alabama, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota and elsewhere to ensure that children have access to an essential building block to literacy—their very own books; and
• Uniting communities around ballot measures, such as in California, that raise revenue and stop cuts to schools by raising income taxes on the state’s highest earners.

“We’re rebuilding the middle class on multiple fronts,” said Weingarten. “Every day, in schools, universities, health-care facilities and other work sites, AFT members are helping children and their families achieve a better future.”
Weingarten also unveiled a new fund to enable AFT members and leaders across the country to develop and implement solution-driven unionism in their own communities.

Despite the economic crisis, Weingarten announced that AFT’s membership of 1.5 million has held steady, with the union organizing 79 new units in 18 states since the last convention. AFT organized new members in every constituency—college and university faculty and staff, graduate assistants, paraprofessionals and school-related personnel, health-care professionals, early- childhood educators, state and local government workers, and teachers in public school systems and in charter schools.

While acknowledging sharp differences with the White House over issues such as the fixation on standardized testing, Weingarten also drove home the stakes of the 2012 election. “The two candidates for president couldn’t be more different,” she said. While President Obama has been working to increase investment in public education and make college more affordable for the middle class, she said, here’s Mitt Romney’s agenda:

“Rather than support workers at home or investments in public schools, Mitt Romney supports the Bush-era tax cuts for the very wealthy. His idea of education reform is vouchers, which study after study has shown do not improve achievement. He supports a plan that would turn Medicare into a voucher system and would double out-of-pocket costs for seniors. He supports a budget plan that would take away Pell Grants.”

Romney doesn’t just disagree with teachers and their unions on these issues, Weingarten said, “Mitt Romney wants to wipe us off the map….He supported attempts to end collective bargaining in Wisconsin, Ohio, and New Hampshire, and he tried in his own state of Massachusetts….Mitt Romney says he would preserve the Department of Education only so he’d have a club to beat back unions. You heard correctly—he would use a federal agency to strip workers of a constitutionally-protected right.”

Weingarten concluded her keynote address with a stirring vision of what we want to see when we look back, a few years from now, on this challenging moment:

“We took a time of existential threat… and turned it into a time of renewed respect.

“We took a time in which an unholy alliance of certain corporate interests and politicians plotted to eliminate our voice, restrict democracy, abandon public education, and marginalize working families … and we turned it into an opportunity to define our future. A time in which we reconnected with community. Reached for solutions. Reasserted our rights. And regained our strength.

“A time in which we put the brakes on this rampant race to the bottom.

“And restored the two essential building blocks of our democracy, the middle class, and the American dream—the union movement and public education.”

We encourage you to read AFT President Weingarten’s speech: