AFGE opened the first day of our 40th Convention with a message of growth, strength, and solidarity in the labor movement – the key components that will help us defeat attacks against the union. About 1,500 AFGE leaders and activists gathered in Orlando for the AFGE convention at one of the most important times in the union’s history as the Koch Brothers and corporate-funded members of Congress are waging a war against federal employees and AFGE.
Orlando is an appropriate place to hold this convention, which will decide the future of our union, as it was the place that 700 AFGE leaders from across the country gathered on the eve of a government lockout in 2013 to forge a strategy to overcome the attacks. That conference gave birth to our Big Enough to Win campaign.
Iraq war veteran Jon Soltz, co-founder of the 220,000-member veterans group Votevets.org, gave an impassioned speech about why he needs AFGE to be Big Enough to Win. An Army officer, he was sent to Iraq in 2003 as a captain during Operation Iraqi Freedom. When he came back, he went to the VA hospital in Pittsburgh. Asked why he was there, he couldn’t produce an answer. He told one of the nurses that he was not the person he used to be. “I then sat there and cried. You know what that nurse said to me? You came to the right place.”
Soltz said AFGE needs to be Big Enough to Win to save the VA so veterans get the care that they need and deserve. VA is the brand that veterans know. VA employees, many of whom are veterans, understand their needs better than anybody else. Soltz is against privatization of the VA. He talked about how he was not permitted to get into a press conference held by a member of Congress to ask why President Bush who started the Iraq War wanted to close VA hospitals.
Also speaking at the convention was APWU President Mark Dimondstein, who asked AFGE delegates “Is it true that AFGE is becoming Big Enough to Win?” He got a resounding “Yes” as a response. Dimondstein said not only AFGE but all the unions need to be Big Enough to Win.
“The labor movement needs to be Big Enough to Win. And not only big enough and strong enough, we need to be united enough to win” because all workers are under attack,” he said, adding that the system is rigged in favor of the rich and big corporations. While big banks got bailed out, government employees got cuts to pay and retirement. The public sector is being demonized by billionaires. He thanked AFGE for standing with postal workers in their fight to stop privatization and elimination of good jobs.
Also speaking at the convention was AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre, who applauded AFGE for our involvement in many causes important to the labor movement such as the bad trade deal.
He thanked AFGE members for the work that they do. As a refugee from Ethiopia who walked across the desert to a refugee camp in Sudan when he was 15 years old and was sent to California to start a new life, it was government employees who helped him adjust to his new country.
“I’m grateful to AFGE before I knew AFGE,” he told the crowd. “It’s not only your job but our job to fight for you and your job.”
Tefere encouraged AFGE to invest in our fight at the local level to elect people who support labor because most politicians work their way up from the local level. By the time they get to the national level, it’s impossible to make them change their position.
AFGE delegates also heard from the Rev. William Barber who has led a civil rights and labor movement in North Carolina and started the Moral Monday movement against social injustice. Rev. Barber gave a rousing speech about racism, economic inequality, and attempts to take away the social safety net, voting, labor, and women’s rights and. “It’s fighting time, y’all,” he said. “We’re fighting for the soul and the heart of this nation.”
Delegates paid tribute to late NVP for District 14 Dwight Bowman and other AFGE leaders and activist who passed away since the last convention.
Awards were given to locals, councils, and districts with the largest increase in membership and the highest amount of PAC contribution raised. AFGE also presented out very first YOUNG emerging leader award to Francis Nichols III from Local 1456 in Washington, D.C.