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Senator Warren Rallies AFT Members To Vote In November, Marchers Take To Downtown Streets

Chris Potter
90.5 WESA
Demonstrators from the American Federation of Teacher prepare to march through downtown Pittsburgh on Saturday, July 14, 2018.

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren spoke to some 3,000 educators at the American Federation of Labor conference in Downtown Pittsburgh this morning, portraying the labor movement’s struggles as a proof of its importance.

“As this administration wages an all-out attack on our democracy, your voices are needed more than ever,” she said in one of many challenges to President Trump. “Unions demand accountability, and Donald Trump and his rich and powerful buddies just can’t stand it.”

Warren, herself a college-level educator prior to launching her political career, is one of the most visible Democrats said to be pondering a presidential run in 2020. Another likely candidate, Vermont Senator and 2016 contender Bernie Sanders, is slated to appear before the AFT on Sunday. Warren mixed dire warnings about the plight of democracy with a more optimistic vision, inspired by teacher strikes in West Virginia and elsewhere.

“We are up against powerful forces” made up of “billionaires and giant corporations,” she said. “If everyone else gets thrown under the bus … it’s of no consequence to them, just so long as they get richer.”

She also pointed to the pending U.S. Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, a staunch conservative Trump is seeking to place on the court in the seat of swing-voter Anthony Kennedy.

“This Supreme Court nomination that’s pending shows us again that this is going to be the fight of our lives. But we’ve got a message for them: Our country is not for sale. Because no matter how deep their pockets may run, we are not going anywhere.”

“Come November 6, we will vote to save this democracy,” she said, to raucous cheers, at the end of her speech.

That theme of hope amid concern echoed throughout the convention, particularly with respect to the Supreme Court’s recent Janus decision. That ruling is seen as potentially disastrous for public-sector unions: It voids a practice in many states by which non-union employees pay dues to unions that negotiate benefits and working conditions on their behalf.

But labor leaders, like New York teachers’ union vice president Andy Pallotta, said there was a silver lining in that outcome. Addressing the assembly after Warren’s speech, Pallotta said that since the ruling, only 9 employees dissolved their dues-paying relationship with his union – while over 9,000 had reaffirmed it. And the threat of Janus, he surmised, would encourage those members to work even harder at organizing support and turnout on Election Day.

“This Janus decision is going to be a good thing for us,” he predicted. “Over the last few decades as a movement, maybe we put organizing on the back burner. … Janus makes us look at things the way it used to be.”

There was no shortage of energy during a march through Downtown later that afternoon. Marchers stretched for nearly three blocks, denouncing Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, and demanding changes to immigration enforcement.

Gun violence was also a theme: During a stop, Mei Ling Ho-Shing, a survivor of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, began speaking out against gun policy – until she was interrupted by fireworks from an afternoon Pirates game on the north shore.

“It’s just fireworks,” marchers assured her as she struggled to collect herself. “It’s just the ballpark.”

“I can no longer listen to fireworks … because the system failed us,” she said.

The march restarted shortly afterward, and AFT President Randi Weingarten told reporters covering the event that the movement, too, would continue.

“We’re becoming more political, not less political,” she said. The Janus decision and other developments, she said, had forced union members to realize how important electoral politics have become.

Asked whether unions had indeed become complacent, she said that often “members outsourced their power to their leaders,” trusting the union to advocate on their behalf. And while the union had talked about mobilizing before, “There is nothing that substitutes for when people see that here really is a right-wing that is trying to destroy you. … The effect has been to catalyze people.”

The convention continues through Monday.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.