More than 300 faculty attended AFT 1521’s 16th annual retirement and benefits conference, “Steps to a Secure Financial Future: Benefits 101,” on September 14th, almost half of them for the first time. The conference was open only to Guild members.
One big difference between this year’s conference and last year’s: the specter of the Supreme Court’s Janus v. ASFCME decision.
“We’re at a crossroads for labor,” said keynote speaker Chloe Osmer, Organizing Director for the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. “The attacks that are coming fast and furious from this administration … mean that we have to choose at this moment how we’re going to respond, whether we’re going to use it to light a fire and organize, or whether we’re going to throw our hands up.”
In past years. the conference’s keynote speakers have included prominent California government officials such as State Treasurer John Chiang and State Controller Betty Yee. This year, Osmer spoke of the challenges that unions have historically faced and issued a forceful call for action. Noting that only 10.7% of workers in the U.S. are unionized, she said, “Employers know our membership numbers – our collective power matters.”
Conference organizer Sharon Hendricks said she intentionally wanted to go in another direction with this year’s keynote speaker. “Janus is really the next fight for active faculty and active union leaders, and I think if we don’t step up, we will lose [benefits],” said Hendricks, AFT 1521’s Treasurer and Retirement Liaison.
“It’s time for us to focus on building our membership and doing a better job helping our members understand why it’s important to be part of a union, and not only part of it, but active,” she added.
The message seems to have gotten through. Gemma Kim, a math instructor at East L.A. College, attended the conference—her first-ever union event—with the goal of learning more about LACCD benefits for part-time faculty.
But after Osmer’s speech, she said would become more involved. “I’m a member of the union but I never participate, I just signed [the card] because I thought that was going to be good for me,” Kim said. “But today I realized I am a member of the union so I have to participate, I have to do more.”
In addition to a panel on benefits for part-time faculty, the conference included sessions on CalSTRS, Social Security, Medicare, the LACCD workers compensation program, and supplemental retirement savings plans. Workshops on student debt and financial awareness were offered for the first time.
Elton Robinson has been teaching barbering and cosmetology at Los Angeles Trade Technical College since 1997. “I’m in a position right now where I’m considering retirement, and there are a lot of workshops here that are going to prepare me for that,” he said.
While Carol Sabol, who has been teaching math at LA Valley College for two years, is several years away from retiring, she wanted to begin learning about her options early. “In terms of money and numbers, you just want to prepare for the future and learn everything you can,” she said.
Both of Sabol’s parents were part of a union; her father worked in the Long Beach shipyards and her mother was a nurse. “It’s just something that’s part of my upbringing,” she said. Her parents “taught us the benefits of being a union member, so I take that very personally.”
At the end of her speech, Osmer asked for a show of hands if people were “willing to talk to faculty who are not yet members and invite them to join the union and join our fight for justice.” Most of the hands in the ballroom went up.
By Pauline Vu