“I congratulate you on your new duchess. I’m also a proud African American woman with a passion for justice, though I have a little more experience than she does.”
American trade unionist Dr Lorretta Johnson began her speech to UNISON’s national conference today with humour, but she moved on to a rousing and compassionate call to arms that had delegates on their feet.
Currently the secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Dr Johnson explained that her six decades of union activism began in 1966 when she became a teacher’s aide [similar to a teaching assistant in the UK], when her children attended school.
She was paid just $2.25 an hour and received no benefits. To improve the work situation of school support staff like herself, she organised them into the Baltimore Teachers Union and then negotiated the union’s first contract in the face of many obstacles: “So many forces against you – racism, sexism, crime, working against you and your family.”
Since that baptism of fire into the movement she has spent “50 years in my union, 43 of them as president, and the other years as a national officer.”
She has also held, and currently holds, several leadership positions outside the AFT. She is a vice president of the AFL-CIO, the US equivalent of the TUC, and serves on the boards of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department, Union Label and Service Trades Department, and Union Privilege organisation.
Despite her many accolades, she is down-to-earth: “Every time I hear my biography I keep saying: ‘Who’s that person?’.”
And despite her many years of activism, she has recently seen things take a turn.“In the era of Donald Trump – I don’t even like to say his name, we call him number 45 – I’m happy to report that he’s making me work again.”
Dr Johnson, whose union represents many public sector workers, from teachers to nurses and university professors, explained that under Trump, “the right has seized the opportunity to destroy the public sector unions”.
The American government is,“spending $400 million to de-fund our unions … because they know the labour movement gives ordinary people opportunities.”
She reminded conference that “dictators throughout history have built power by kneecapping trade unionists and undercutting education”.
At the same time Trump is shifting the balance further towards the rich: “In Washington, Congress passed a tax bill for the wealthy and corporations, to redistribute wealth upwards.”
She described Trump – or ‘number 45’ – as having “blood on his hands because of his cruel and inhuman policy at the Mexican border. We will not let them win.”
Despite all this, Dr Johnson is optimistic.
She is optimistic because of the anger and determination she has seen in her country.
“The women’s march, the climate marches, the marches against bigotry and hate, the teacher walkouts across the country in places where people are usually afraid to say they are in a union, the student walkouts.
“Dr King’s hopes and dreams for a better and more just society did not die with him. We are still dreaming those dreams, and we will achieve them.
“Ordinary people are ready. They have the money, but we have the people. I’ll fight against 45 and against the billionaires, and against the right wing. It’s part of a strong tradition that you embody in your union, UNISON. You’re standing strong, and we’re standing strong with you.
“I’ve been a fighter all my life,” Dr Johnson told delegates.“If you see me in a fight with a bear, help the bear!”