“Together We Thrive: Strengthening Our Communities through Public Service”. That was the theme of the 2021 American Federation of Teachers Professional Issues Conference, which took place in New York City from October 8 to 10. This was my first time attending an AFT conference. It was also the first time this conference had taken place since 2017, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I had the opportunity to attend with IFPE Local 4408 President Matt Emigholz, Treasurer Gwen Harrison, and Field Service Director Deneen Taylor. Executive Vice-President Veronica Aguirre was unable to attend, due to a conflict.
A number of speakers at the conference focused on this theme. Among them were AFT President Randi Weingarten, Secretary-Treasurer Fedrick Ingram, and Executive Vice-President Evelyn DeJesus. One of the main points in their speeches about ongoing efforts to pass the PRO Act, infrastructure spending, and other legislative initiatives relevant to workers and their families was that these are not just union-specific issues. “They are American issues,” as President Weingarten emphasized. Also connected to the theme was the point that healthy and prosperous unions are inextricably linked with the well-being of the larger communities they serve. A number of video testimonials underscored this message, including accounts by Local 4408 President Matt Emigholz and retired RC-56 Area Vice-President Tom Jackson of their efforts to overcome challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the most valuable aspects of the conference was having the opportunity to learn from union members based throughout the United States, and even abroad. At one of the sessions I attended, I was at a discussion table with members from North Dakota, Alaska, and upstate New York. I went into this session and others with the mindset that Illinois has had it especially difficult in terms of facing anti-union efforts, particularly with the fallout from the Janus ruling and the Rauner administration’s other attempts to weaken unions and public services. Also, with Illinois having the fifth-highest total number of COVID-19 cases (although the per-capita ranking is significantly lower), I was under the impression that the state has borne a significant brunt of the pandemic.
After speaking with the other attendees, however, I came to understand that the challenges facing their states at least match, if not exceed, those Illinois has endured. I was particularly struck by the Alaskan member's accounts of the struggles just to move PPE supplies, due to the lack of a reliable road network in many areas of the state and the ability to fly only small planes to deliver those supplies. I also heard stories of union members having to produce by themselves all of the PPE equipment necessary for their jobs, since management and government simply could not, or would not, do so.
The main takeway from the conference was the need to "check in" with members, to see how they are faring and what the union can do to assist them. Obviously, this is a step that unions should take in normal times. With the pandemic preventing in-person meetings, however, and with members facing numerous challenges in their professional and personal lives, this need to stay in contact takes on an even greater importance. Just as attendees at the conference were "checking in" with each other after going four years without meeting, so attendees, including those of us from Local 4408, should undertake the work of “checking in” with our members back home, especially by keeping the lines of communication open and responding promptly and conscientiously to members’ concerns.
AFT President Randi Weingarten
IFPE Local 4408 President Matt Emigholz
IFPE Local 4408 RC-56 Area Vice-President Tom Jackson (retired)