AFT - American Federation of Teachers

06/22/2024 | News release | Distributed by Public on 06/22/2024 19:06

Public employee leaders trek to Turtle Mountain

In a visit to North Dakota affiliates that marked several firsts, members of the AFT Public Employees program and policy council met in Bismarck last month at the North Dakota United union hall. Their visit began with a trip to Turtle Mountain Reservation, where AFT Executive Vice President Evelyn DeJesus, along with Sue Parton, president of the Federation of Indian Service Employees, and NDU President Nick Archuleta, spent the day visiting FISE members at their work sites three hours north of Bismarck, near Canada.

AFT Executive Vice President Evelyn DeJesus admires posters of Chief Kakenwash.

The AFT leaders met with local leaders at Dunseith Day School, where they chatted with members and potential members; Turtle Mountain Elementary School, for lunch with staff and students; and Turtle Mountain Middle School in Belcourt. They were accompanied by FISE board member Cameron Johnson, representing the U.S. Bureau of Indian Education.

DeJesus announced the formation of an AFT Native American and Indigenous Issues Task Force, to be co-chaired by Parton and Tucker Quetone of Rochester, Minn. The task force plans its first gathering on July 9-10 in Washington, D.C. In addition to learning some local Native American history, members of the PPC acknowledged that their meeting place was on land originally inhabited by Lakota, Dakota, Cheyanne, Chippewa and several other tribes.

DeJesus touted the AFT's citizenship clinics and encouraged leaders to show care and affection for their members by hosting outings, celebrations, family fairs and book distributions through the AFT's Reading Opens the World campaign. This tells the community, "I'll be here tomorrow to help you," she said, adding: "You are the leaders who have been chosen for such a time as this. This work is God's work, and we can make it happen."

For her part, Parton explained how FISE represents federal employees across 22 states who work for agencies under the U.S. Department of the Interior. She expressed her happiness for the chance to visit members at the Turtle Mountain Reservation and speak with them in person.

'They should have listened to us'

The meeting was hosted by Gary Feist, a state tax auditor and vice president of public employees for North Dakota United. He led council members in discussions on short staffing, artificial intelligence, the erosion and closure of state pension plans, and budget shortfalls. PPC members discussed the adoption of AI in their workplaces, which is being tracked and evaluated by the AFT president's AI advisory committee.

Many murals adorn the walls of Turtle Mountain public schools.

In welcoming public service leaders to North Dakota, Archuleta recounted how state legislators and the governor had closed the traditional defined-benefit pension plan for state employees over the objections of those employees, who correctly predicted that shuttering the pension plan would cost billions more than keeping it.

"They should have listened to us," Archuleta said, lamenting his "ruby red" state's relentless drive to cut taxes and, as a result, starve essential public services like police, fire and education. "Everything we said has come to pass. Public employees know what the hell they're talking about."

The state president pointed out that famed financier Warren Buffett's corporation, Berkshire Hathaway, paid $50 billion in taxes last year. If other big U.S. corporations paid their fair share in taxes, Archuleta said, no one else in America would have to. He said he loves the AFT because our union doesn't just complain about problems-it proposes solutions, like taxing billionaires and eliminating tax havens.

Looking ahead

Also top of mind was the Public Employees Short Staffing Task Force report, recently mailed to all AFT public employee union presidents. The PPC worked on a plan of action for implementing the report's recommendations.

Sarah LaFrenz, president of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, thanked her fellow PPC leaders for contributing volunteers to the recent KOSE mobilization in Topeka. The union gained more than 100 new members as volunteers knocked on over 700 doors in four days. Volunteer organizers from around the country came together to learn about the science of organizing and apply this science through house visits, work-site meetings and member outreach. "The work that these teams did was absolutely amazing," she said. "This is why we're here: to serve, to love and to show [members] the things we can help with."

Additional PPC topics included plans for public employee activities at the AFT national convention in Houston July 22-25-notably the Jim McGarvey Breakfast, where the guest speaker will be labor journalist Steven Greenhouse.

[Annette Licitra]