In a succinct speech, aimed at rousing union delegates to prepare for the fight of this young century, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten presented her case: The nation is on the brink of losing its democratic principles unless the populace pushes back against the forces of tyranny.
“Elections mater. We have a reminder of that every day,” Weingarten told the more than 2,000 delegates who jammed the convention hall at NYSUT's Representative Assembly Friday night.
Schools and communities, she said, will be decimated under President Trump’s proposed federal budget, which calls for draconian cuts to public education, job training programs, subsidized meals, summer and after-school programs and social services. She predicted anti-labor rulings from the Supreme Court next year with the confirmation earlier in the day of Neil Gorsuch, a right-wing ideologue who has consistently sided with corporate interests. And she said unionists and educators “have to fight [Betsy] DeVos’ narrative that our schools are a dead end.”
Most important, Weingarten said, “There is one battle we must win. And that’s for our democracy.”
Up until now, most Americans have been spectators to threats to democracies in nations around the world, Weingarten said. But, since the presidential election, the threats to democratic values — among them, fair elections, the right to vote, freedom of the press, an independent judiciary, the right to organize unions — are coming from the White House, she said.
Winning the biggest battles of all — taking back Congress and the presidency — will require an enormous effort to win elections across the nation, by reaching out to voters in red and blue states, by “finding ways to reach to people’s hopes, not fears,” and by holding politicians accountable for their actions. “That’s how we’ll reclaim our values,” Weingarten said.
Then, raising her voice, she shouted, “Are you ready to fight for our values? Are you ready to fight for our public schools? ... Are you ready for this battle?”
Earlier in her speech, she spoke about the public fight to prevent the confirmation of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, which galvanized the public. Five million phone calls were screened through the Senate switchboard, a record-breaking number. “We put her record out there and exposed her for what she did,” Weingarten said.
Although, ultimately, the fight was lost in a history-making, tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence, “That wasn’t the end for us,” Weingarten said, “That was the beginning. We’re going to fight Trump and DeVos’ obscene budget cuts.”
She commended NYSUT for mobilizing its members and the public. “NYSUT knows how to put on those boxing gloves better than anyone else I know,” she said.
And those who value the nation’s democratic values, Weingarten said, must keep public schools public, work to maintain financial security for retirees, fight discrimination and bigotry, fight for decent, affordable health care and “stand up for our freedoms and demonstrate that government can be a force for good.”