Skip to main content

TEXT: AFT Pennsylvania President Arthur Steinberg 2021 State of the Union

Delivered virtually, June 25, 2021 from the AFT Pennsylvania Eastern Office in Plymouth Meeting, PA

Good afternoon! And welcome to the 2021 AFT Pennsylvania Biennial Convention. This weekend, we have all come together, virtually, to reaffirm our commitment to our union, to public education, and to each other.
While I hoped that we could all be physically together this weekend, the last fifteen months had other ideas. So, I hope you will enjoy this year’s convention from the comfort of your own home. 
Two years ago, when we all came together in Philadelphia, I was fortunate to have been elected President of AFT Pennsylvania, our statewide union. Back then, we were a union of thirty six thousand members and sixty one locals. And my plans and hopes were to revive the organizing and advocacy operations of our organization.
As you heard in our welcome video, one of the most important reasons I decided to run for this office in the first place was a recognition that our school infrastructure in Pennsylvania is in crisis. Coming from my own local, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, where I still serve as Chief Trustee of the Health and Welfare Fund and Treasurer, I have gained far more knowledge about air quality, lead plumbing and paint, and damaged asbestos than I every imagined I would when I became a teacher so many years ago.
I became a teacher for the same reason that so many of you have chosen to make education your profession: investment in our children through a high-quality education is among the best ways to make our world a better place, and to leave it to the next generation better than we found it. And our kids cannot learn and our educators cannot teach in buildings that poison us and make us sick.
So, one of the very first things we did after my election in 2019 was to join the Fund Our Facilities Coalition, which was founded by Local Three as well as several local and state elected officials. We recognized that if toxic schools was viewed by lawmakers only as a Philadelphia problem or as an urban problem, we would not make the kind of progress our members and students so rightly deserve. Since AFT Pennsylvania joined, the Coalition has grown to over sixty partners, with more geographic diversity than ever before.
This was just one part of AFT Pennsylvania’s transition from a purely-member services organization to an advocacy organization.
Rather than acting just as a constituent service operation, it was important for AFT Pennsylvania to start flexing its institutional muscle. As Pennsylvania’s second largest teachers union, we were often overlooked in legislative negotiations and seldom consulted on administrative matters. For our educators to have an easier time in the classroom, it was important to ensure that policymakers knew that we were not just watching, we were willing to be partners in government, especially on issues of public education and labor, and able to hold those accountable who do not work in the interest of our members or the children, families, and communities we serve.
In the days immediately following our last biennial convention, I believed that the most challenging task ahead of us was ensuring the defeat of the former occupant of the White House. Then-Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was a long-known threat to public education, and she and her boss were enacting every twisted fantasy of dismantling public schools and educators, and the only way to stop the destruction was to elect a new President.
Little did any of us know that public education and our entire world would be turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic.
On March eleventh, 2020, AFT Pennsylvania sent out its first advisory message to members about the coronavirus outbreak that was just starting to be reported in the United States. Later that evening, the NBA suspended the rest of its season after a player tested positive for the virus. Businesses, governments, and schools followed suit in the hours and days that followed.
Friday, March 13th, 2020 was the day that Governor Wolf made his first of many disaster declarations, and will be remembered as the day life changed drastically for everyone.
So many moments in the following weeks and months were filled with uncertainty—how long will this list; when would we return to our classrooms; and will it be safe? AFT Pennsylvania became an authority on what it meant to reopen safely, and the trust we have built with our members, the parents of our students, and our communities, meant that all eyes were on educators for the next moves.
We communicated with our membership daily for the first few months of the pandemic, aggregating the latest in public health guidance, regulations from the Department of Education, and best practices to keep members, their families, and their students safe.
Straight away, we got to work with AFT at the national level working on solutions to get schools, our communities, and our economy reopened safely. Due in large part to our advocacy, educators in Pennsylvania were not just able to maintain their employment when school buildings closed, which was not the case in every state, but paid their entire salary.
In April, AFT released a detailed, thoughtful plan for safely reopening, and along with state federations across the nation—from Pennsylvania to Florida, Ohio to Oregon, Michigan, Wisconsin, and West Virginia—we lobbied members of congress, US Senators, and administration officials for the resources needed to implement the plan.
Then, when it was clear our essential workers: educators, nurses, fire fighters, EMTs, police officers, grocery clerks, bus drivers, and delivery drivers were not just overwhelmed by the increase in their workload, but the safety risks they were taking every day just to keep the rest of us safe, we continued to lobby and organize actions to encourage our elected leaders to step up.
As we made it past the end of the scheduled school year and into the summer of last year, we all watched in horror as George Floyd was murdered by a police officer on camera in broad daylight. Our nation began having a long overdue mainstream conversation about racial inequities, not just in policing but in all aspects of American life: employment, housing, health care, and education.
That was when we released our Five Principles of Racial Justice, which hundreds of you have signed onto.
We were staring down four simultaneous crises: a public health emergency in the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic fallout of the pandemic, the long overdue reckoning with racial injustice, and the ever-growing climate crises.
It was abundantly clear that the quickest, and most comprehensive way we would get the virus under control, get our economy back on track, address climate change, and begin healing as a nation was to elect a new President and change the makeup of Congress and the Pennsylvania legislature.
With the help of significant political funding from AFT, and in partnership with other unions and pro-labor, pro-public education stakeholders, we set out to create the most aggressive member-to-member political program in recent memory. We sought to inform every AFT member in the Commonwealth of new vote-by-mail rules that would allow them to cast their ballot from the safety of their own homes. We engaged in 28 critical legislative races, all of which were in tough-to-win seats, from South Hills, to Erie, nabbing victories in about a third of them.
So integral was AFT Pennsylvania in the Presidential race, one that was won here in our Commonwealth, that when AFT President Randi Weingarten embarked on a 15-state get out the vote bus tour, we had four stops here in Pennsylvania, starting in Pittsburgh at PFT400, then at the Scranton Federation, at an early voting site in Philadelphia, and at our Eastern Office in Plymouth Meeting. And because our union was able to work so closely with the Biden-Harris campaign, we were fortunate enough to have PFT3 member Benjamin Hover introduce Dr. Jill Biden at a rally in Upper Moreland, and Vice President for Southeast Pennsylvania and Neshaminy Federation President Tara Huber introduced President Biden at an event in Bucks County.
Then, when it appeared that an authoritarian President and his allies in Congress might conspire to overturn a free and fair election, we continued our advocacy to ensure that every vote was counted. Fortunately, many of us were together on Independence Mall in Philadelphia gearing up to fight for the will of the people at the very moment the election was called by major networks. It was at that rally that Vice President at Large Trina Dean was quoted as saying “Good things happen up in this jawn.”
And since President Biden has been in office, we have continued to have an open dialogue with the White House on the needs of our members.
With a Presidential election, in the middle of a pandemic, and so much else out of our control, it would have been excusable to claim that we lacked bandwidth to do much else. But that could not be further from the truth.
Although AFT Pennsylvania offices have been physically closed for much of the past fifteen months, we have done incredible work building our organization to meet the ever-changing needs of our members. Just before the pandemic began, we hired a new executive director, who comes from higher education having been president of the graduate student’s union at Temple University, a local of AFT.
We hired new staff representatives who are sensitive to the needs of members in all sectors of our union, including a representative dedicated to higher education and one dedicated to specialty and technical schools. We even hired a stellar new union organizer to help us grow our ranks.
And grow our ranks, we have. I am incredibly proud to announce that after years of no new growth, in the past two years we have organized three new locals of AFT Pennsylvania. We are excited to welcome the Faculty of the University of the Arts, the professionals of Environmental Charter School, and the United Staff of the Day School at the Children’s Institute of Pittsburgh to their first AFT Pennsylvania Biennial Convention.
Our staff have developed and implemented a Labor Leadership Program, with classes offered to members on subjects like organizing, management, education policy, contract negotiations, and contract servicing, which over 50 of you have participated in virtually in the past year.
We applied for, and were awarded, a fifty thousand Dollar Innovation Grant from AFT to develop our Remote Instructional Training for Educators (RITE) program, which will provide our members with meaningful professional development in the realm of remote teaching and learning. 
Finally, in a time when union treasury is under constant scrutiny and stress due in large part to the Supreme Court precedent set in Janus vs AFSCME, AFT Pennsylvania is on sound financial ground. We have corrected some unsustainable expenses and have built a healthy balance sheet that will allow us to expand our programs and outreach to help us continue to grow and offer more and better services to our members. Our financial health is a tribute to your trust in our union, as we enjoy high member density.
Because of your heroic work and activism, the state of our union is strong and I am hopeful for our shared future. I look forward to continuing the work we have begun, especially as our state budget is being negotiated as we speak, to ensure that every child in Pennsylvania has access to a safe, high-quality public education and that the educators responsible for delivering it are treated with the dignity and respect they so rightly deserve.
Welcome again to the 2021 AFT Pennsylvania Biennial Convention. I hope you enjoy your time here and I look forward to working with you for another two years.
Thank you.

Share This