United States: American Federation of Teachers holds convention in time of crisis

published 6 August 2020 updated 19 August 2020

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), in a convention held virtually, organised a series of discussions and adopted resolutions on education, trade union and policy issues. The convention endorsed Joe Biden for President by a vote of more than 90 per cent of delegates after an unprecedented, extensive membership consultation process.

Prior to 2020, the only time that AFT delegates did not gather in person was during World War II. Delegates met virtually from 28-30 July 2020. Committees also functioned and reported to the convention.

AFT President Randi Weingarten, in her opening remarks, laid out the three crises being faced by the United States: the public health crisis, the economic crisis, and reckoning with America’s racism. In her speech, a major theme was the elections scheduled in this time of overlapping crises for 3 November. Weingarten stressed the exceptional importance of the elections, saying, “democracy is on the ballot.”

Several speakers, including leaders of local unions that had held strikes well before the pandemic argued that the strong public support for teachers during the strikes, even in states considered to be “conservative,” showed that the value of public education and of educators had not been diminished by more than a generation of misguided attacks on education and educators. The pandemic had increased the appreciation for public services and those workers who make them function.

After the convention endorsement for President, Joe Biden responded to questions from delegates. He defended public services and the workers that make them happen, especially education, and proposed building a fairer and greener future. He argued for action rather than words, saying, “Don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget and I will tell you what you value”.

Several speakers at the convention, including Joe Biden, recognised the service of Loretta Johnson, who was retiring as AFT Secretary-Treasurer. A resolution expressed appreciation for her service, honouring Johnson for her “54 years of leadership in promoting the dignity of AFT members and working people in our own country and around the world by fighting for worker rights, civil rights, economic rights, human rights, expanding collective bargaining for thousands of our AFT paraprofessionals, and enhancing the influence and power of the AFT.”

Convention delegates approved resolutions to:

  • Support victims of the pandemic and effective measures to curb its spread, ensure occupational health and safety, and adequate resources and precautions for the safe reopening of schools.
  • “Reimagine our society and rewrite the rules so everyone in America has access to opportunity and justice.” It also says that the foundation of “a well-functioning democracy and society is a people secured by the freedom to live safely and securely, and the opportunity to attain a better life.”
  • Support the Green New Deal to counter climate change while ensuring that the rights and conditions of workers are protected.
  • Call for a young workers’ movement and support the development of youth leadership in the union, welcome young members into the union and make sure that union participation is a good experience. Measures would include a Emerging Leaders’ Academy to help bring more young educators into leading roles in the union.
  • Reaffirm the AFT’s commitment to combat sexual harassment, discrimination and violence in the workplace, stressing the right of all workers to “safe and respectful working conditions”.
  • Support public spending to boost the economy and re-build crumbling infrastructure.
  • Back the restoration of full rights to the “Dreamers” (DACA), children brought to the United States at a young age, as ordered by the US Supreme Court.
  • Promote anti-racism efforts, including reforms of policing related to abuses highlighted by Black Lives Matter and others. In addition to opposing discrimination, it would encourage diversity and inclusion.

Although daily sessions were briefer than in-person conventions, business was completed except for leadership elections. Officers will be chosen by mail ballot on 1-31 August. The results will be announced in September.