American Federation of Teachers holds empowering convention in Detroit w/inspiring speech by VP Biden (PHOTOS)

“Being a teacher is not what I do, it’s who I am.” – Dr. Jill Biden

This past weekend, the American Federation of Teachers held what can only be described as an energizing, empowering and successful national convention in the Cobo Center in Detroit, Michigan. During the four-day event which concludes today featured such luminaries as Sandra Fluke (women’s reproductive rights activist) and Walmart plaintiff Betty Dukes (both of whom received AFT Women’s Rights awards), Diane Ravitch (education historian, writer), David Hecker (AFT Michigan), Charles Blow (New York Times op-ed columnist), Rev. Dr. Wendell Anthony (Detroit NAACP), Bob King (UAW), Karla Swift (Michigan AFL-CIO), Chris Michalakis (Metro Detroit AFL-CIO), U.S. Rep. Dale Kildee, Dr. Jill Biden and Vice President Joe Biden.

One of the highlights of the week was the keynote speech by AFT president Randi Weingarten who was reelected as AFT president toda. During her keynote, she unveiled a new approach for AFT she dubbed “solution-driven unionism”. During her speech, Weingarten talked about the “new normal” facing Americans today in face of severe budget cuts jeopardizing public education, healthcare and other critical services; families losing more than 30 percent of their wealth during the economic crisis; and more than 100 bills introduced in state legislatures to demonize and attack public employees and undermine public services:

This new reality—this new normal—demands an entirely new approach to unionism. An approach that is relevant and appropriate to the 21st century. More than ever, we need to act in innovative, creative and new ways—simultaneously refuting our critics, advancing our values, connecting with community and proposing solutions. That’s solution-driven unionism.

For me, solution-driven unionism took root when I saw our members in the ABC Unified School District in Southern California commit to a unionism that focuses on solving problems, not on winning arguments. It unites those we represent and those we serve, and in so doing, it ensures that we don’t merely survive, but we succeed. {…}

I look at it this way: We’re rebuilding the middle class on multiple fronts. Every day, in schools, universities, healthcare facilities and other work sites, AFT members are helping children and their families achieve a better future. And, while you’re at work building futures, some of your pension dollars will be at work—putting other union members to work building the middle class of today, as they build the infrastructure of tomorrow. {…}

[We must be] foot soldiers for equality and opportunity, voice and democracy. Just as previous generations were soldiers for freedom and for civil rights, we now must band together as soldiers in a struggle not just for ourselves, not even just for the children in our classrooms, but for a different and better America.

The AFT gave their full-throated support to the Obama/Biden administration who they see as allies in their efforts. “I see this presidential election not as a referendum on President Obama but as a day of judgment for a way of life, for our values, for democracy, for opportunity, for fairness and for the future of our country,” said Weingarten. She said this is in sharp contrast to Mitt Romney’s proposals which include firing teachers and increasing class sizes.

As an example of solution-driven unionism, Weingarten introduced a new partnership with British corporation TES Connect called Share My Lesson, the nation’s largest free collection of classroom resources created by teachers, for teachers, including a new section of materials for developing curricula based on the Common Core State Standards. You can learn more about Share My Lesson in their video HERE.

Weingarten also discussed AFT’s partnership with First Book to ensure that children have access to an essential building block of literacy—their very own books. They are working to distribute 5 million new books to children from low-income families over the next year. Over the last six months, in more than 20 pilot programs across the country, AFT affiliates have joined with First Book to give away nearly a quarter of a million books to students and families in need.

During the convention which was attended by nearly 3,000 people, AFT adopted a new mission statement:

“The American Federation of Teachers is a union of professionals that champions fairness; democracy; economic opportunity; and high-quality public education, healthcare and public services for our students, their families and our communities. We are committed to advancing these principles through community engagement, organizing, collective bargaining and political activism, and especially through the work our members do.”

“This new mission statement makes it crystal clear who we are, what we believe, and what we will fight for,” said Weingarten. “Economic opportunity, strengthening communities, fairness and democracy—these are the values and principles that AFT members hold dear. They are part of our DNA.”

You can watch Weingarten’s Keynote and view a wide assortment of videos from the AFT Convention website HERE.

Sunday’s activities were capped off by speeches from Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden and Vice President Joe Biden. who were accompanied on stage by their granddaughter, Maisy. Anne and I were invited to have our photos taken with Vice President Biden. However, we were not able to do both that and cover his speech, too, so we remained in the convention hall to watch the Vice President’s most-excellent speech. We were not disappointed and I highly recommend watching the speech in its entirety:

“Being a teacher is not what I do, it’s who I am.”

“My name is Joe Biden and I’m in love with a teacher!”

“Who says [teachers] don’t work all the time?”

“Until somebody tries teaching, they shouldn’t think they know… I don’t think people fully understand how much goes into your profession.”

What we see when we look at you — Barack and I and Jill and Michelle — is we see educators, we see professionals, we see teachers. We see public servants who are under full-blown assault today. Governor Romney’s plan for public education is straightforward. He says let the states use all the Title I dollars to boost enrollment in private schools and alternative and basically the effect is to strip you of your voice. He characterizes you, and his allies characterize you as only caring about yourselves. But the fact of the matter is, I don’t think they know you, I don’t think he knows you. You’re not in this fight just because of your job. You’re in this fight for the same reason Jill is… None of you decided, ‘You know, I really want to go out there and be a teacher because I can really make a lot of money!’ … the only kind of remuneration that you really get is seeing that light go on.

“It’s YOU that calls your husband or wife or neighbor and says, ‘Can you watch MY child tonight because I’m going to go to another child’s home because they have to pass this English test in order to be able to make it.’ It’s YOU! It’s not somebody else. And when the school district runs out of money because of this God-awful recession they inflicted on y’all, it’s YOU! It’s YOU who sacrificed and forgo contractual raises and YOU that make other sacrifices to maintain full-day kindergarten like you did in Long Island. It’s YOU who keeps the art and gym classes goin’ in Toledo, Ohio. It’s YOU who keeps early education available in Los Angeles, California. It’s YOU that kept class sizes down in Providence, Rhode Island. I could go on and on and on. It’s YOU who take money out of your pocket when kids in your class don’t have tablets, don’t have pencils, don’t have pens. It’s YOU who do that! It’s not somebody else! It’s YOU!”

We should be debating about how big a seat you have at the table, not whether you get to sit at the table when we talk about how to improve education in America.

“Ladies and gentlemen, instead of working to provide you with things that help you do what you must do, they criticize you; they blame you for the shortcomings of public education.”

“You what I sense this election, watching the Republican debates — and I’m not being facetious when I say this — it looks as though they’ve decided that public education is not worth the investment anymore.

“You know, look. This is not your father’s Republican party, folks. This is not your father’s Republican Party. Governor Romney, the Republican Party in Congress, and many of the new Republican governors, they have a fundamentally different set of priorities and fundamentally different values. I am not questioning their motives but I am questioning their judgment.”

“They say and they talk about valuing education… My dad used to have an expression…‘Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget and I will tell you what you value.’ Don’t tell me you value women in the workplace and you don’t hire any women. And don’t tell me you value education and you won’t invest in it… The Republican budget endorsed by Governor Romney, the so-called Ryan budget…just take a look at what it does, about how much they value education. It cuts $900 million out of elementary and secondary education which result in as many as 38,000 teachers and aides losing their jobs this fall… They cut Headstart. As many as 200,000 kids will lose access to early learning opportunities… They cut Pell grants. More than 9 million students will lose an average of $1,000 a year, making the difference whether they can stay or not. They cut college work study programs. More than 100,000 students will be affected on whether or not they can stay in college… They eliminated the college tuition tax credit they were so proud of. That’s $10,000 for four years for each of your children…

And they call YOU selfish. Ladies and gentlemen, let me describe selfish for you. The reason they have to make these cuts… he HAS to endorse it in order to pay for THEIR priorities… In order make from for a one trillion, six hundred billion tax cut that goes only to millionaires… Of the so-called Bush tax cuts for the very top…$800 billion goes to people with a minimum income of a million dollars and roughly $500 billion of that trillion goes to 120,000 families. That’s it. Roughly $500 billion to 120,000 households in America. On top of that, Governor Romney and Republicans in Congress have endorsed an additional roughly trillion dollar tax cut… to qualify for it you have to make a minimum of one million dollars.

“It’s pretty clear what this new Republican Party thinks of YOU, thinks of my wife, thinks of all those who are educators. Just listen to what Governor Romney and his friends say, listen the things they’ve said (and I’m not taking this out of context.) One Republican Congressman said, ‘The government needs to get its nose out of the education business.’ He compared federal student loans to ‘stage 3 cancer of socialism’… Romney went on to say (and this one I love), ‘I was not pleased with what I read about a plan to save 240,000 teachers jobs.'” He was not pleased. He was not pleased. In Philadelphia, he told a group of teachers, ‘Class size doesn’t matter.’ You all know that, right?!”[LAUGHTER]

“Ladies and gentlemen, if you really want to know what Governor Romney thinks about your profession, just go to his website… Here’s what it says, ‘When your cause in life is preventing parents from having a meaningful choice or children from having a real chance, then you’re on the wrong side.’ You? You are the ones who don’t want people to have a meaningful chance? That’s what he thinks of you… Is this guy serious? By the way, I’d feel better if he wasn’t. But I think he is. I know he changes his position a lot but on this one I think he is! … Have you ever heard a presidential candidate for the United States say something even remotely like that?”

“The argument at its core, when you strip everything aside is, we think you build and rebuild this country from the middle out. They honestly believe…that truly the best way to make us the most competitive nation in the world in the 21st Century is from the top down. Because I don’t think they think much of our capacity; they think it has to come from the top. We believe, and we think history shows, that the way America has grown and lead the world is from the middle out. Because when the middle class is doing well, the poor have a ladder up, an opportunity, and the wealthy do very, very, very well because y’all have money to spend to buy things they make…everybody does well.

“Barack and I have one objective…when we’re finished, for all those moms and dads to be able to turn to their kids and say, ‘Honey, it’s going to be okay’ and KNOW that.”

Unlike our Republican friends in this new Republican Party, we don’t see you as the problem, we see you as the solution.

Photos by Anne C. Savage (except the crappy iPhone shot), used with permission.]

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