2020 Year In Review for AFT-Maryland

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Each year presents the state federation with opportunities to serve members and help out in the community. Before meeting the opportunities of 2021, it’s worthwhile to look back at AFT-Maryland’s efforts from 2020. The state federation eagerly got to work in 2020 in service of the more than 15,000 public employees across the state of Maryland. The year kicked off in January with a push to get legislators to pass the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future Act. The Blueprint is the educational overhaul legislation that is commonly referred to as the Kirwan bill. AFT-Maryland and Baltimore Teachers Union (Local 340) members and staff were on hand with others, including William “Brit” Kirwan and former U.S. Secretary of Education John King to call on legislators to pass the education bill and fully fund Maryland public schools. That would only be the beginning of AFT-Maryland’s lobbying efforts.

Later that month the state federation, behind the leadership of AFT-Maryland Political Coordinator Todd Reynolds, went to Annapolis for the annual AFT-Maryland Lobby Night. The event was a success allowing members to meet elected officials and advocate for themselves as citizens and public employees. Legislators look forward to the night when a sea of people in blue AFT-Maryland hats, scarves, and tee-shirts come to the state capitol to engage and advocate. The night also demonstrates the strength and solidarity of the state federation as public employees lobby for themselves and their fellow workers. Education professionals ask about state health care facilities; corrections officers inquire about education plans; public health nurses lobby for collective bargaining rights for state teachers. The entire event displays the power of labor when solidarity remains the focus.

AFT-Maryland’s annual Legislative Reception is another opportunity for members and leaders to engage state legislators. This event is smaller and more intimate which allows for greater depth and detail in conversations. Typically this event is attended by local leadership where they speak with specificity about pending legislation that will affect their members. This is an event where local leaders meet and find what bills may affect multiple unions, and they collaborate to work toward mutually satisfactory ends.

The City Union of Baltimore (Local 800) started the year off working to get its members and other city employees a tax credit. The effort was specifically focused on those who are considered low wage workers, and the tax credit was an effort to incentivize them to purchase homes in Baltimore city. President Antoinette Ryan-Johnson testified before the city council on the impact the tax credit would have on CUB members and the positive benefit to the city. The council agreed, ultimately passing the tax credit for low wage city workers.

As 2020 continued, union activities picked up. The Maryland School for the Deaf Faculty and Staff Association (Local 4828) hosted a “Union Day” at the Columbia campus. AFT-Maryland organizers talked with members there about legislation in the General Assembly that affected their work and shared some benefits of being union members. While organizers were activating members at the Maryland School for the Deaf, AFT Healthcare-Maryland joined with AFSCME to lobby for pay equity in Annapolis. The combined strength of AFT-Maryland and AFSCME ensured that state workers’ voices were heard.

2020 was going to bring change to Baltimore as the city prepared to have a mayoral election later in the year. The state federation convened a mayoral forum exclusively for members to allow the candidates to make a direct appeal to union voters.

Things appeared to be moving along swimmingly until March. That was when the nation began to feel the devastating impact of COVID-19. While many transitioned to working from home (as many still are today) essential personnel such as state and municipal employees stayed on the job to keep public services functioning even during the height of the pandemic. AFT-Maryland and its locals sprung into action to secure and distribute personal protective equipment (PPE) to members on the front lines. The national AFT office distributed PPE to the state federation who in turn got them in the hands of local leaders. President John Ripley of the Baltimore County Federation of Public Employees (Local 4883) partnered with Under Armour to provide additional PPE for members. AFT-Maryland organizers and staff made trips to community health clinics to ensure that members of the Baltimore County Federation of Public Health Nurses (Local 5102) had PPE, and CUB and AFT-Maryland staff stuffed care packages of PPE that would be distributed through the rest of the year at a number of locations where city workers were employed.

We didn’t just pass out PPE (though we did pass out a lot of PPE… a lot of PPE), the state federation sent a letter to Governor Hogan and local leaders outlining the demands of public employees who were deemed essential employees who had to work on the front line. The letter detailed what resources frontline workers would need to do their jobs safely. The letter spoke to the needs of not only state workers but also municipal employees. It was an example of the state federation speaking with one voice to the needs of public employees.

As the summer wore on, AFT-Maryland joined with the larger AFL-CIO family for a workers’ caravan at the United States Capitol. This caravan demanded passage of the HEROES Act that would have provided funding to state and local governments and ensure workers would have the necessary PPE to do their jobs safely in the midst of a pandemic. Members from across the state federation got in their cars, honked their horns and made sure their voices and their horns were heard by Congressional leaders.

Deeper into the summer Governor Hogan and other local leaders began reopening Maryland. Before doing so however, AFT-Maryland made Governor Hogan aware of what would be necessary for state and local government employees in order to safely reopen. The state federation again solidified around safety in the workplace for public employees and sent the Governor a letter detailing and outlining what must be in place to make a safe reopening a priority for Marylanders and public employees. AFT-Maryland continued to advocate for workers and their safety at every turn of Maryland’s pandemic response.

One of the ways we advocated was by rallying staff and cross-federation support for the Maryland Professional Employees Council (Local 6197). When Gov. Hogan proposed over $200M in pre-emptive cuts, MPEC responded. The state federation supported the union as they fought back against the pre-emptive cuts that would have meant significant job losses during a global pandemic. Ultimately, the Board of Public Works voted against the cuts and President Jerry Smith issued his thanks to the quick mobilization of the MPEC membership and also Treasurer Kopp and Comptroller Franchot for choosing not to balance the budget on the backs of state workers.

The pandemic meant unions had to be agile and adapt to the new reality. The Maryland Classified Employees Association (Local 1935), who are famously known for an engaging and spirited convention in Ocean City, MD instead held their 2020 convention virtually. While the union missed the comradery of being in person, and the usually festive dinner that concludes the convention, they were still able to complete the important work before the union, including the election of officers.

The pandemic didn’t pause political activism. After successfully lobbying for the passage of the Kirwan bill, unfortunately Governor Hogan vetoed the bill. The state federation didn’t take that lying down. We mounted a full-on campaign (with the help of fellow unions and education advocates) to overturn the veto. The campaign lasted through the summer months and reminded state legislators that among their top priorities needed to be overturning Gov. Hogan’s veto, so we can begin to provide equitable funding and resources for Maryland’s public school students.

2020 was set to be an exciting year for the national federation as AFT had plans to head to Houston for the bi-annual convention. The pandemic put a halt to those plans, instead turning it into a virtual conference for AFT members. At the convention, AFT-Maryland’s very own Dr. Lorretta Johnson was honored with the Bayard Rustin Award. Dr. Johnson retired in 2020 and the award was a well-deserved recognition of her commitment to the labor movement in general, and public employees in particular. As one legend of the Baltimore Teachers Union was receiving her flowers, the current member activists continued the fight with a caravan to demand that Comcast make Internet access more widely available to Baltimore city students. Honking horns was a theme of summer protests as AFT-Maryland rallied in support of postal workers when President Trump attempted to defund the USPS.

No mention of the summer of 2020 would be complete without acknowledging the long, hot summer of protest. Millions of Americans took to the streets to protest racialized police violence. Members of AFT-Maryland were no different as they individually participated in actions across the state in their own way. President Marietta English issued a heartfelt message to members saying in part “any effort to effect change in a democratic society starts with agitation and continues with the electoral process.” She and AFT national leadership stepped up and made sure the union’s voice was heard.

As the summer turned to fall, our nation anxiously prepared for the Presidential election. AFT-Maryland supported every effort to expand democracy and get more people involved in the electoral process. Leading up to the election, AFT-Maryland staff and members phone banked, wrote letters to fellow union members, and participated in voter registration drives and caravans. The state federation even hosted a “Trunk or Treat” event in Baltimore city to get out the vote and spread the Halloween spirit. State federation efforts culminated in election day poll monitoring to ensure election protection at sites all across the state. The efforts were rewarded as the AFT-endorsed candidates, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, were elected President and Vice President of the United States.

Union work didn’t stop in the face of the election. BTU members continued agitation demanding safe school reopenings. As Covid-19 numbers began to increase across the state and in Baltimore city, the union pushed back on re-entering the classroom. The question was one of safety for all Baltimore City Public School staff. This staff was not only BTU members but also CUB members. Presidents Antoinette Ryan-Johnson and Diamonté Brown held a press conference with AFSCME local 558 President Wendy Smith to call for a delay to putting workers back into schools. CUB waged battle on two fronts: while the union fought for members working in schools, the union, with support from AFT-Maryland and community allies, pushed back on efforts to privatize Baltimore water meter technicians which would result in more than 60 employees losing their jobs. CUB and AFT-Maryland’s efforts were successful, the meter technicians are still employed, and the operations have not been privatized.

2020 unfortunately resulted in loss for the state federation. Longtime AFT-Maryland staff member Frank Pratka retired. Frank worked with many unions during his time with AFT-Maryland and his presence will be missed by local and state federation leaders alike. The year also took AFT Secretary-Treasurer Emeritus Nat LaCour. Nationally, LaCour was known for being a tireless advocate for racial and labor justice. Locally however, we knew Nat as the loving husband of longtime BTU Executive Assistant Connie Goodly-LaCour. Nat will truly be missed and AFT-Maryland’s sympathies go to Connie, and the entire family mourning the loss of this warrior for justice.

2020 was a tumultuous year for the nation and Maryland was no exception. As we move into 2021, AFT-Maryland stands committed to deploying every resource to ensure public employees across the state get a fair wage, work in healthy and safe conditions, and continue their service to the public, beyond the workplace by extending a helping hand in the community. 

2021-01-12