AFT PRESIDENT Randi Weingarten kicked off the AFT national convention in Los Angeles on Friday with a bold plan to reclaim the promise of America, one that can help create economic and educational opportunity for all because it not only fights back but also “fights forward.”
This work is vital, and the stakes couldn’t be higher, Weingarten told more than 3,500 delegates in a keynote address that cast the current environment as a time of well-funded, well-coordinated attacks against working people, unions, public education and public services. These efforts are designed to destroy rather than to build. Their goal is to starve public institutions, demonize workers and unions, and peddle private alternatives—while marginalizing anyone who opposes them. Through this turbulence, however, the union continues to stand tall and add members. “Despite the toughest environment unions have ever faced, I’m proud to announce that our ranks have grown since we last met,” Weingarten told delegates.
“Today we are larger than ever, a union of 1.6 million members.” The AFT president stressed how critical this growth is at a time when millions of citi zens are struggling and finding that the promise of America has devolved into more of an aspiration than a realization. “Our job is to inspire, ignite and move millions to reclaim the promise of America,” she told delegates. “Here’s how: connect with community; be solution driven; engage, empower and elevate our members—and, frankly, be a little badass.”
From ‘test-and-punish’ to ‘support-and-improve’
Weingarten stressed the need to increase educational opportunity and change the narrative when it comes to school accountability. Policy makers at every level must recognize that “you cannot fire your way to Finland,” said the AFT
president, who called out “test-and-punish” systems and school improvement schemes that are “reducing children to test scores and teachers to algorithms,” especially when it comes to the use of value-added measures.
On the Common Core State Standards, Weingarten drew heavy applause when she remarked, “Some of you, myself included, think they hold great promise but that they’ve been implemented terribly. … The conflation of the standards with testing and the profit motive has got to stop.”
The AFT president reaffirmed her call for a moratorium on the high-stakes consequences for students and educators on Common Core-aligned assessments. She also called out Education Secretary Arne Duncan and state superintendents like New York’s John King for dismissing the concerns of parents and educators about the implementation of the standards.
Also needed, Weingarten said, was greater teacher voice in matters related to the Common Core, and she announced a new AFT Innovation Fund grant for members who want to lead on the standards. These new grants, designed to empower members on areas tied to the Common Core, “will be relatively openended,” she told delegates. “You tell us what you want to do, how you would do it, and what you’ll do with the results. We will provide the resources to the strongest applications.”
A full-fledged defense of due process
Weingarten told delegates that the union would respond to Vergara, the recent California decision that takes aim at fundamental school employee rights, with a full-fledged defense of due process as a fundamental right. “Educators, healthcare workers and public workers need it” no less than other workers do, she said. “How else do we exercise our professional judgment and prevent going back to patronage systems, where your job depended on who you knew, not what you know?”
There are ways to improve, rather than gut, due process laws that are not working well, Weingarten said. “The bitter irony is throwing out due process will make it harder to attract and keep great teachers.”
The Vergara decision is the wrong prescription, one based on the belief “that, for kids to win, teachers have to lose. … So, yes, we will fight it in the courtroom and in the court of public opinion.”
A broader struggle
To create an economy that works for all, Weingarten outlined policy proposals that the AFT would advocate for. Among them: growing the union movement and reviving collective bargaining, increasing retirement security, easing the student debt burden, funding universal early childhood education, and securing full, equitable funding for all schools. The union also stands behind investments in infrastructure and incentives to revive manufacturing, said the AFT president, who highlighted the union’s work to invest member pension funds in infrastructure and create 150,000 jobs.
These goals require member engagement, she emphasized, particularly when it comes to political participation. Elections matter—determining who nominates and confirms Supreme Court justices and whether working people have elected officials who stand with them or orchestrate attacks on their jobs and livelihoods. “With the full strength of our union, united with community, prepared to
call out problems and bring forth solutions, and willing to be a little bit badass—we not only fight forward, we move forward.”