Union president delivers keynote address at biennial TEACH conference to more than 1,200 educators from around the country
WASHINGTON—Classroom teachers, school-based staff, paraprofessionals and others convened here Thursday for the American Federation of Teachers biennial TEACH (Together Educating America’s Children) conference. In a keynote address, AFT President Randi Weingarten urged attendees to safeguard democracy.
Laying out the major priorities of the union in 2019, including investment in public education, tackling the student debt crisis, creating safe and welcoming workplaces, and fighting for professionalism and the freedom to teach, Weingarten called on members to harness the energy around the teacher walkouts as well as recent contract and electoral victories to continue to build power in the face of relentless attacks on working people and democratic values.
She invited members to use their unique role to move an agenda for a better life, saying:
“We are part of two institutions that are essential to the American dream—public education and the labor movement. Public schools and labor unions are the direct pathways to broad-based prosperity and pluralism. They are how people can achieve a better life. And you—AFT members—are at the nexus of both.
“The freedom to teach gives us voice in our work. Feeling safe in school and being free of crushing student debt give us freedom from anxiety. But there is no freedom more important than having a democracy, and a voice in it.”
Weingarten noted historic fights for civil rights, voting rights and labor rights—and she challenged members to continue building on that legacy, and to harness their power through voting and advocacy.
She discussed the awesome responsibility facing educators as role models for their students in a time when hatred and bigotry are on the rise in schools, arguing that public schools can be an antidote to hate, a ladder of opportunity, a path out of poverty, and a place to develop the muscle of civic participation.
“America’s teachers are called to be defenders of decency and guardians of democracy, because the very foundations of America are being shaken every day,” Weingarten said.
She also described the paradigm shift happening in public education, citing years of countering “billionaires and ideologues intent on reducing teachers and students to a test score, dividing parents and teachers, pauperizing our schools, and scapegoating and slandering public school teachers.”
“By telling our story—about what works in our schools, and what doesn’t,” she said, “We have changed the narrative about public education and, in so doing, have helped preserve it. Now we have to save democracy.”
Recorded video messages from several 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, including former Vice President Joe Biden, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sens. Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders Elizabeth Warren and others echoed these themes, along with a special video message from former first lady Michelle Obama, announcing a partnership to support her nonpartisan voter registration initiative called When We All Vote, which works to make all schools across the United States hubs for voter registration by registering all eligible high school students, and their parents as well.
The full text of the speech can be found here.