“We must lead,” National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García implored a roomful of rapt NYSUT leaders on January’s last frigid night of the year. “I’m talking spandex and a cape. We must be the superhero!”
Heralding the results of November’s mid-term elections, where voters supported an historic number of pro-education candidates across the country, Eskelsen García reminded her audience that “our most cherished principles” depend on the 2020 election.
“Celebrate but don’t get comfortable,” she urged, warning that the opposition will be working hard to make sure fewer people show up at the polls next election through voter suppression and gerrymandering. “They will throw grenades.”
Unions didn’t change their stripes, she asked, so why did they win?
“We lead. We didn’t wait for someone to save us,” Eskelsen García said. People asked themselves: Should I run? Should I lead? Should I organize?
The November 2018 elections saw the largest voter turnout in mid-term elections since 1914, she said. There were more voters, and more candidates of different cultural backgrounds. They talked about living wage, humane immigration policy, pro education and health care. “We have never seen more diverse, outspoken candidates,” she said.
The leader of the nation’s largest union, Eskelsen García was keynote speaker as members of NYSUT’s 2018-2019 Leadership Institute gathered for their winter session in Saratoga Springs. She spoke of the importance of keeping up the momentum.
Work needs to begin now, she said. “Democracy begins the day after the election…Winners promised to do the right thing. So now we lead and we hold people accountable.” So many candidates promised to support public education and stop the growth of for-profit charter schools that drain money from public schools.
“No one talked about privatization or toxic testing,” she said. “…It should give us great hope and great heart.
“The door to the public school is always open. Education for us is not transactional,” she said.
Turning to the banner with the logos of NYSUT, NEA, AFT and AFL-CIO, Eskelsen García circled each union.
“We are doing it. It’s what we are doing to stop corruption. Leadership of educators and union leaders was why we won so big,” she said, peppering her talk with Spanish. “We are fearless fighters.”
Unions, she said, showed people what was at stake: equality, access and opportunity.
“You don’t win by destroying what you hate; you win by saving what you love,” said the NEA leader, quoting from Star Wars.
In West Virginia – where brave teachers could have lost their jobs - Arizona, Oklahoma and Los Angeles, educators have built momentum for support for schools through victorious “Red for Ed” campaigns supported by their communities, she said. In Los Angeles, she held the banner for the United Teachers of Los Angeles along with Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
These unions have achieved better funding for schools, better conditions for students and better salaries because “they weren’t alone.” She said. “We’ve changed the conversation.” People realized that being in a union brought support and action.
Prior to these actions, funding for school nurses, counselors and librarians in some of these public schools was “like finding a unicorn,” she said.
NEA, AFT and other unions held trainings for people running for office, from school boards to U.S. representatives. Eskelsen García ticked off the results: educator wins in Connecticut, Colorado and Georgia; and two educators sitting in the governors’ offices in Minnesota and Wisconsin—where ousted Gov. Scott Walker had cut into the power of public unions. Her list continued and continued – a roster of wins by union members across the country.
Before her speech, while she was trying to warm up in the lobby, Eskelsen García shared how she enjoys unearthing Washington, D.C., history. She shared one such gem. The Capitol is near the Willard Hotel, she said. President Ulysses Grant regularly used to walk to the bar there after work. No one dared to bother him there, because he didn’t like it. But people would wait for him outside the bar in the lobby in order to speak to him about their concerns. He’d say: “Look at all the lobbyists!”
That’s where the term comes from, she said, before heading inside to urge the NYSUT unionists to begin their own versions of lobbying.