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Unions and the community are 'a natural coalition'

Solution-driven unionism may have been the overarching theme of the 2013 joint conference of the AFT Healthcare and AFT Public Employees divisions, but the importance of community engagement was the biggest takeaway message for the 450 AFT members and guests who gathered in Baltimore, April 25-27.
"The future of the labor movement relies largely on the connection we make with those we serve," said Candice Owley, chair of the AFT Healthcare program and policy council and an AFT vice president. "For years, I saw my role as bargaining contracts and organizing, but my vision was too narrow. I see now that we have to have a bigger vision. Our union must be the voice for quality and for the community. We have to reach beyond our borders and out to the rest of the brothers and sisters in the movement and to those in the community."

Jill Cohenour, chair of the AFT Public Employees PPC, hit on a similar theme when she laid out the challenges faced by public employees. Citing the pressure put on government programs by tight budgets and limited resources, she said: "Public employees need the help and support of the community to maintain public services. Working together will strengthen our union and the services we provide."

AFT executive vice president Francine Lawrence echoed the sentiments of both Owley and Cohenour: "Union members working with people in the communities that they serve are a natural coalition," she said at the conference's opening session.

Coalition building and community engagement was a key component of the successful 2011 campaign to repeal Ohio's anti-worker, anti-union Senate Bill 5, AFT president Randi Weingarten noted during her address at a conference luncheon. "In Ohio, we won the hearts and minds of our neighbors. If we don't engage the community, we are not going to move our agenda."

The labor movement, Weingarten said, is the only thing standing in the way of groups like ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) that advocate for policies that would lead to deep cuts in the essential public services many Americans depend on. The AFT needs to be "big and strong and tough" in order to take on those who denigrate and marginalize public employees, healthcare professionals and other workers, said Weingarten, adding that the labor movement can gain strength and rebuild its density by coalescing with the community and "showing the people we serve that we want to make a difference in their lives."

Whether they work in healthcare, education, or state and local government, AFT members have one very important thing in common: They contribute mightily—and unselfishly—to the common good. Unfortunately, that reality is often not well-communicated to the general public.

A public employees division general session looked at ways to build public support—and revenue—for state and local governments. Jeff Freitas, secretary-treasurer of the California Federation of Teachers, shared some of the nuts and bolts of the campaign to win approval of a tax increase in his home state. A coordinated campaign mounted by the CFT and other unions, along with Gov. Jerry Brown, helped educate voters in California about the need for a fairer, more progressive tax system. The result was the decisive passage of Proposition 30 last November, which has already helped turn a massive state deficit into a surplus, Freitas said, and eliminated furloughs for state workers, frozen tuition at public universities (which was steadily rising), and made more money available for public education and pay raises for public employees.

Public awareness campaigns like that surrounding the push for Prop 30 in California are critical to building support for government and telling the story about the importance of public services, said Elaine Mejia from the group Public Works. She shared videos produced by several states that link the taxes paid by its citizens to services ranging from public transportation and access to parks and recreation, to food and water safety.

Another public employee panel discussion featuring Gary Feist, president of the North Dakota Public Employees Association, and Cohenour, from MEA-MFT in Montana, also drove home the point that the general public—as well as members—need to be educated about the role of taxes and revenue in supporting high-quality public services. "It's clear that the citizens of North Dakota want public services—they want to have their roads plowed and their children educated," said Feist.

Addressing a public employees division luncheon, U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) thanked attendees for "what you do every day." Cummings, a vocal and consistent supporter of workers and their unions, said he was "tired of government employees being bashed and having to take furloughs." Those who criticize the labor movement and public sector workers do so because they fear the collective strength of unions and their members, he asserted. "Don't let people tell you that you are powerless."

Lisa Lubomski, assistant professor in the Quality and Safety Research Group at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, was the featured speaker during a healthcare division plenary session on patient safety, an issue she says deserves more attention. "We have had tremendous advances in healthcare over the years, but when it comes to patient safety, … we still have a way to go," said Lubomski.

Lubomski shared how the hospital at Johns Hopkins University was able to eliminate catheter-line-associated blood stream infections. "The effort started with a dedicated small team at JHU who saw a problem and wanted to make things better," she said. "This work requires you to start small. Sometimes it only takes one person. You need to fight hard for what you believe in. That fight may not be easy but it will be worth it."

The Affordable Care Act, and its impact on their work, was on the minds of many of those attending the workshops and plenary sessions hosted by AFT Healthcare. Mary Wakefield, the administrator of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department's Health Resources and Services Administration, told attendees that unions and the HRSA have a shared agenda to expand access and improve healthcare quality, both goals that are well-embedded in the Affordable Care Act. "I can't think of any time when public policy has had a more profound impact on the nation's health," she said.

Wakefield called on the AFT's health professionals to help answer questions about the new law. "We still have a big lift ahead of us because people still don't know what's available to them under the ACA," she said. "In order for people to embrace the ACA, they need to know the facts. You can help your patients, friends and the community navigate the healthcare process."

The conference closed with a joint session on building community partnerships. Nicole Mankowski, president of a healthcare local affiliated with the Health Professional and Allied Employees in New Jersey, and Carlos Garcia, secretary-treasurer of the New York State Public Employees Federation, provided accounts of their unions' work with faith leaders and others in the community to save healthcare services for underserved populations.

In her remarks to that session, AFT secretary-treasurer Lorretta Johnson said that the answer to the attacks faced by each of the AFT's constituencies is the same: community engagement. "All of us can make a difference," said Johnson. It starts with using our voices to tell our stories and then building a connection with those in the community. "If we don't tell our story, who will?"

The three-day joint conference offered more than two dozen workshops, including workshops on the Affordable Care Act, pensions and retirement security, stress management, and social media. [Adrienne Coles, Roger Glass]

May 3, 2013