The American Federation of Teachers continues to grow, picking up new members and new locals.
Since May 1997, when Sandra Feldman became president, 365,372 people have joined the AFT, and 829 new locals were formed, according to the union. The membership covers all categories of workers, not just teachers.
To celebrate, union leaders organized a parade of sorts for the new members, reminiscent of Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans, right down to the bead necklaces. After shouting a hearty welcome to the newest delegates in attendance, Nat LaCour, AFT’s executive vice president and a former president of the United Teachers of New Orleans, led some 300 of them in the parade through the convention hall here as music boomed out of loudspeakers.
The delegates, all wearing blue T-shirts with AFT logos in white on the front, and waving blue and white union pennants, marched and danced around the floor to the tunes of “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now,” “Dancing in the Streets,” and “Celebration.”
After the music stopped, delegates gathered on the stage and floor to hear many of the new members address the crowd, much of which was drowned out by the noise. Still, one phrase, which was also splashed across three large television screens in the hall, could be heard over and over: “We mobilize! We organize! We build the AFT!”
Solidarity in Song
Music, indeed, was in the air at this year’s convention—labor music, that is. The delegates streaming into the general session on the morning of July 14 were welcomed by the warm tones of gospel with the words changed to tell stories of AFT members and the convention.
The choir, made up of seven or so delegates from across the country, and a few AFT staff members thrown in, was organized the night before for just one practice before performing.
Although the vocalists had never practiced together before that night, they were no strangers to this type of music. According to Tom Moran, a senior associate director of AFT’s PSRP, or paraprofessional and school-related personnel, department—and the organizer of the choir this year, labor tunes are common to AFT locals. A solidarity night takes place every year at the separate PSRP conference. Those attending the solidarity night can learn how to write ditties about the pro-labor movement by changing the words of a variety of song genres to apply to their own workplaces. The members learn the craft and then share it with fellow union members back home. “I think it’s very powerful,” says Mr. Moran. “It’s a great tool to get people energized and mobilized.”
So, when Mr. Moran decided to get a choir together to sing at the AFT’s opening session, there was no lack of possible crooners. With music written by Gloria Britton-Ellis, a delegate from Kansas City, Mo., who also played the piano for the group, they were good to go. According to Mr. Moran, some audience members became so energized that they grabbed a lyric sheet themselves and hopped up on stage—a true testament to the power of music.
Behind the Scenes
A first-time visitor to the general-session floor of the convention center might have been fooled by the four giant television screens into thinking they were about to see a music concert, or, if it weren’t for the carpet, a basketball game. Behind the screens and the cameras was Charles Stopak, who has been in the event-production business for more than 20 years.
Mr. Stopak and his crew ran the audio and video feed from the production truck behind the Washington Convention Center. Along with his crew, he sat in a very, very small and crowded room and controlled what goes on the screens in the center.
Before a general session on July 15, the room was filled with five men who were preparing and joking around with crew members in the convention hall, who wore headsets to stay in constant communication.
Once the session started, however, everyone’s attention shifted to the 31 television screens in front of them. Two larger screens previewed and displayed the feed currently on three of the four convention-center screens; six showed the team what each camera was taping; one was the teleprompter feed, two were for still pictures that are stored for later use; and the remainder served other purposes.
Mr. Stopak used to produce basketball games and football games, which move much faster than the convention, but he loves his work no matter what he’s covering. He’s been working with the AFT since 1988, and says the union makes the work even more enjoyable. “I feel like a part of their family.”
—Catherine A. Carroll