Our work — your work — through this tumultuous year has been amazing. In the most challenging of times, you have made a difference in the lives of so many: You have helped your students, patients and communities recover from a pandemic in the midst of a steady stream of vitriol, division and misinformation — caring, fighting and showing up despite staff shortages and exhaustion. You have transformed lives, and we are so grateful for your steadfast dedication.
We are hopeful for the next year, because even with all this tumult and trauma, we are in better shape than we were in December 2020. We have lots of challenges — to our democracy, our schools and our workplaces, but even with the new COVID-19 omicron variant, vaccines and boosters remain the single most effective way to prevent serious disease and death. While we hoped we would not be facing yet another COVID-19 curveball, we have far more resources to combat this one, and continue to consult with experts to get the most up-to-date information. Plus, thankfully, we have a White House that is willing to work with us and support us — providing testing and ongoing guidance — rather than make our lives harder. We must continue to be cautious, but not panicked.
Fighting, caring and showing up mean more today than ever before, not just for our communities to recover, but for our communities to thrive. But it also takes unity and solidarity. Together, as an increasing number of people who want to be in unions know, we can accomplish what is impossible to do alone.
Yes, this year began with an insurrection on the U.S. Capitol, a dark and terrifying moment that exposed the urgent need to secure our democracy. In response, we keep fighting to safeguard our elections and preserve our democracy.
But there have also been some good moments.
- After the AFT’s student loan lawsuit against former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the new Biden administration agreed to major changes to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, and thousands of AFT members and other public employees have had their student debt forgiven. It’s life-changing to go from a student debt balance of thousands of dollars down to zero. And we know restarting payments for borrowers in January would be detrimental, and that is why we asked the White House to extend the deadline. They heard us loud and clear — student debt repayment has been extended until May 1, 2022. And remember, our student loan navigator Summer is available to every AFT member.
- After COVID-19 vaccines became available, we mobilized to get healthcare professionals, educators and other frontline workers vaccinated. That effort, along with the layered mitigation, has been the key to getting school buildings open safely for in-person learning and our economy back on track. More than 90 percent of our members got vaccinated before it was mandated anywhere, and now we are making a big push for boosters. This summer and fall, the AFT invested $5 million — one of the largest mobilizations our union has ever made — to get students and members back into school buildings safely: getting resources in place; fighting for layered mitigation protocols; holding vaccine clinics for students and families; going door to door answering parents’ questions; and getting the services and conditions our educators and families need, like lowering class size and creating more community schools. In fact, our efforts to get school open safely was profiled in the New York Times over the weekend.
- The silver lining of this year has been the growing recognition that workers have a shot at a better life when they are involved in labor unions, and that is exactly what the AFT has done in helping members win major contract victories, including teachers in Pennsylvania, bus drivers in Rhode Island and New Mexico, public employees in Colorado, healthcare professionals in Oregon, and lecturers in California.
- Elections do matter. President Biden’s American Rescue Plan and the bipartisan Infrastructure and Investment Jobs Act, which we helped secure, are huge supports for our schools, our economy and our communities. These two bills are changing people’s lives by investing millions of dollars in our roads, our schools and our communities, including broadband investments for our students and cleaning up lead pipes in our schools; and then of course there is the childcare tax credit that we’re working to renew.
- Reading is foundational. We just launched our literacy initiative, Reading Opens the World, which is a multiyear, multimillion-dollar campaign to spark the love of reading and aims to enhance reading instruction; engage parents, families and communities; and distribute 1 million books to kids across the country.
There is a saying that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. This year has been tough and scary as we’ve weathered the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, an economic roller coaster, misinformation, polarization, and repeated attacks on our union, our schools, our hospitals and all the people we represent. Despite it all, as we take a moment to reflect, know that we have each other’s backs.
But there is always much more to do.
First, our workplaces have to be safe and welcoming for all. Safety was the key to getting school buildings reopened, and it will be the key to keeping them open as the delta and the omicron variants spread. Educators and students want to teach and learn in person, but we must have the safety measures in place to protect teachers, staff and students alike: vaccinations and boosters, regular testing, good ventilation and for now, indoor masking. Whether it’s COVID-19 safety or the teaching of honest and accurate history, our focus is on working with our students and their families, not the outside cultural war. When we have a collaborative environment where our education community works together, we create the trust necessary to meet the challenges we face.
Our healthcare professionals and public employees feel similarly exhausted and caught in the crossfire, and they, too, need support as they work daily on the frontlines. That means that in the new year, we must continue to do everything we can to help them, including taking on staffing and shortage issues, from nurse-to-patient ratios in hospitals to class-size reductions in schools. These issues impact all of us; and burnout in these sectors puts our members, our kids and our patients at risk. We will continue fighting for your dignity and respect; and we will work to bring our communities together in that effort — knowing that real power lies in making connections, not divisions.
And make no mistake: The anti-labor and anti-public education forces will continue to try to divide us, stirring up controversy about school safety, lying about what we teach, and exploiting the frustration everyone feels about the pandemic to try to pit parents and educators against each other.
The real agenda of the right, as Betsy DeVos, Christopher Rufo and others make clear, is the demise of public schools and the fracturing of our neighborhoods. And while public schools are by no means perfect, they are foundational for our students; they are the way we prepare kids for life, for careers, for college, and to become engaged citizens of the world. And parents are our partners — whether it’s about student safety, literacy or teaching honest history. We will continue to stand up to make sure everyone has a voice, and everyone feels safe and welcome inside our public school classrooms.
We’ll continue to fight for the resources and respect we need to help our students succeed; and we’ll continue to fight against vitriol, racism in all its forms and the chilling effect on what we teach. Earlier this year, we made a commitment that we will defend any teacher fired for teaching honest history. In New Hampshire, we have filed a suit challenging the state’s vague law about what teachers can teach. Everyone deserves to be in school without fear of violence, and we are starting to work with social media companies like TikTok to stop the viral rumors that paralyze the school community.
We also need to continue our legislative work to help the Biden-Harris administration deliver on its promises to help folks secure a better life, with access to family-sustaining jobs, good healthcare, retirement benefits and more. Congress must pass the Build Back Better legislation and the voting rights bill, as well as the PRO (Protecting the Right to Organize) Act to give greater protections to workers, and help create an economy that works for everyone, where the wealthy pay their fair share and everyone can access a voice at work, and in our democracy. And on top of those federal priorities, we need to continue to fight on the local level for contracts that help educators, healthcare workers, school staff and public employees.
America is at a turning point, and we must fight for our public schools, our communities and our democracy.
Together, we can accomplish what would be impossible to do alone. We are grateful for you each and every day.
Randi Weingarten, AFT President
Fedrick C. Ingram, AFT Secretary-Treasurer
Evelyn DeJesus, AFT Executive Vice President