AFGE opened our 40th Convention on Monday 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 five-day 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, AFGE, and all unions.
Orlando is an appropriate place to hold this convention as it was the place where 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 on our members. That conference gave birth to the Big Enough to Win campaign.
On the first day of convention, AFGE President J. David Cox Sr. urged delegates to stand up and fight to win despite our enemies’ bigger war chest.
“I think I’m in a room with people who understand that in politics, just like any other field of endeavor, having a tough opponent is no reason to give up. Having a tough opponent is no reason to give in,” he said.
Echoing Cox’s sentiments was Iraq war veteran and co-founder of the 220,000 member veterans group Votevets.org Jon Soltz, who 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, a third 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 American Postal Workers Union 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. Dimonstein 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 trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. 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 known as the Moral Monday movement. 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.”
The union paid tribute to late NVP for District 14 Dwight Bowman and other AFGE leaders and activists who passed away since the last convention.
On the second day of convention, AFGE delegates heard rousing speeches from two champions of the labor movement: AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Emeritus Arlene Holt Baker and Association of Flight Attendants-CWA International President Sara Nelson.
Even though Holt Baker has retired, she is still very much involved in the labor and civil rights movement. Despite many improvements we’ve made, Holt Baker said too many Americans are still struggling. There have been attempts to take away Social Security and suppress voting rights of the poor, the young, the old, the disabled, and people of color. Women are still struggling for pay equity and affordable child care.
“I can’t rest because of more and more people that I know are working two or three minimum wage jobs just trying to make ends meet. So what do I do? I march. I agitate,” she said. “And I serve on non-profit boards, some of them supported by AFGE that work with the labor movement to raise wages, fight for a living wage, protect our voting rights, and fight for the right for workers to be able to organize in this country.”
Then there’s racism that threatens our communities and country. But Holt Baker said she has some comfort in the fact that the AFL-CIO has formed a commission on race to look at the economic impact on workers.
Holt Baker said she was very impressed by the proceedings where AFGE honored young people who have contributed to the labor movement and locals with the largest increase of membership. “You can’t have accountability if you don’t measure. AFGE, you measure,” she added.
Sara Nelson stressed the importance of unions and solidarity in the labor movement. To drive home the point, she shared how United Airlines failed to pay her in her first month on the job and her co-worker had to write her a personal check for $800 and tell her to call the union.
“I learned two things that day. As flight attendants and workers, we take care of each other. And as union members, you are never alone,” she said. “That experience ignited a passion in me for union work.”
Nelson was stationed in Boston when 9/11 happened. She flew on Flight 175 frequently and it could have been her on that fateful day. She lost her friends when the plane was hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center. Back then, airport security was set up to fail because screeners were overworked and underpaid.
“When airport security was federalized, security improved immediately. When TSOs took over airport security, my personal security improved immediately,” she told the cheering crowd. “Safety and security doesn’t just happen; it happens because we crew members as well as TSOs demand it.”
That was not the only time that her union and AFGE worked together. When former administrator John Pistole decided to allow knives on planes, AFA worked with AFGE and allies to reverse the decision. And we succeeded in just 90 days.
AFGE is strong, and that’s why we are under attack, Nelson said. “The 1% wants you removed. But you have to stand up and fight! Stand up and fight!”
On Thursday, AFGE delegates heard from Rep. Patrick Murphy of Florida, National Association of Letter Carriers President Frederic Rolando, and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.
Rep. Murphy urged AFGE members to continue to get involved in issues they care about in order to make a difference. As an elected official, he loves meeting with his constituents and listen to their personal stories. He expressed outrage over the current attacks against Social Security, Medicare, the middle class, unions, and federal workers. He said the vibrant middle class makes America unique and sets itself apart from other countries.
“And let’s not forget what originally built the middle class. You all, right? Unions,” he said. “It’s morally wrong to ask the men and women who keep our food, keep our skies, keep our homeland safe to continue to shoulder the entire burden for this country’s deficit.”
NALC’s Rolando opened his speech by saying that 274,000 members of his union support AFGE in everything we do. He thanked AFGE and Cox in particular for always being a strong supporter of postal workers. He stressed the importance of solidarity as the attacks against public workers are not perpetuated by a few bad people; it’s rather a systematic attack propelled by ideology permeating throughout Congress and the media. And these attacks are not going away even though the American people strongly support the work that AFGE and NALC members do. That’s why both unions need to keep growing and fighting.
“NALC and letter carriers are committed to helping AFGE and the entire labor movement become Big Enough to Win,” he said.
Greeted by a 1950s hit song “Teacher’s Pet” and the children of AFGE, AFT’s Weigarten told AFGE delegates that 1.6 million AFT members stand with federal employees today and every day. She praised AFGE for many of our accomplishments, including recruiting 6,000 people a month and bringing a union contract to TSA.
Besides sharing the same building in Washington, D.C., Weigarten said both unions have many things in common. Both share a strong commitment to organizing. Both give our hearts and souls to our workers. Both share a vision for America where all Americans have access to a good education, job, health care, fair treatment at work, retirement with financial security, and well-resourced VA.
“That’s the promise of America. But today that promise is out of reach for everyday Americans who struggle to get by,” she said.
The AFT president said both unions are facing serious threats, and our enemies intend to wipe us off the map.
“It’s important for us to stand shoulder to shoulder, our two unions. If the history of the American labor movement taught us anything, it’s that when we come together we win.”