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'America Is Failing Our Teachers,' Sen. Elizabeth Warren Tells Union

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Pittsburgh, Penn.

Millions of teachers in the U.S. are "getting crushed" by low wages, cuts to school funding, and other education policies, said Sen. Elizabeth Warren in a speech at the American Federation of Teachers' biannual convention.

With about a dozen people waving signs that said "Educators for Elizabeth Warren" behind her, the senator called public school teachers "some of the hardest-working, most dedicated people in this country." Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, started her career as an elementary special education teacher.  

"The mark that a teacher makes on a child's life runs deep," she said, naming her 2nd grade teacher, Mrs. Lee, as a person who changed her life. Mrs. Lee was the first person to tell her that she could be a teacher when she grew up, Warren said. 

"Today, I stand here as a daughter of a janitor who became a public school teacher ... and a United States Senator," Warren said to a crowd of about 3,000 people. "I am grateful to that America, I believe in that America."

But now, she said, too many teachers are working second or third jobs to make ends meet. (Indeed, recent federal data show that about 1 in 5 teachers have another job.) Too many teachers are spending their own money on school supplies. (That's also backed by federal data, which show the average teacher spends nearly $480 on supplies each year.) And they're battling student loan debt, dealing with "shoe-string budgets" for their students, and being paid "insulting salaries," Warren said.

"America is failing our teachers, and when we fail our teachers, we fail our students, and we fail our future," Warren said. "This is a time of crisis, and a crisis for America's teachers is a crisis for America." 

Still, she said, she has hope. 

"Across this country, educators are rising up, speaking out, and fighting for the future of this country," Warren said, referencing the wave of teacher strikes that happened in about a half-dozen states this spring. "Teachers are rising up with a simple message: Enough is enough."

She then gave a rousing endorsement to teachers' unions, saying that they are the key to fighting for policies that protect the middle class. 

"If we want to win, we need to act together—we need our unions," she said. "Through our unions, we raise our voices strong and proud."

Warren criticized President Donald Trump for his campaign promises to protect workers—"that turned out to be a bold-faced lie," she said. "Once he was elected, President Trump launched an all-out war on unions."

For instance, she said, he appointed a "union-busting Supreme Court justice," Neil Gorsuch. 

"Trump's nominee was the deciding vote in the Janus case, which was the latest attempt to break the backs of the unions," Warren said. The case, which was decided last month, prohibited "agency" or "fair share" fees that unions had been charging to nonmembers in 22 states to cover the cost of collective bargaining.

The Janus case is expected to dent the teachers' unions' treasuries and lead to an exodus of members, who can now be represented through collective bargaining without paying anything. Still, the theme of the AFT conference, much like the other large national teachers' union's convention last week, has been defiance in the face of resistence. Many union leaders here have said that the vast majorities of their members have recommitted to the union.

"Union members are strong—they speak out, they don't sit down and shut up," Warren said. "Or, to say it another way, nevertheless, we persist." 

The crowd jumped up to give Warren a standing ovation at the reference of a phrase that became a feminist battle cry. (After Warren was silenced by Senate Republicans when she was giving a speech on the Senate floor last year, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell explained what happened by saying, "She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.") 

"I am proud to fight shoulder-to-shoulder alongside you," Warren told the crowd. As she concluded her speech, several began chanting, "Warren 2020."

Warren, who is up for re-election this fall, has said she's not interested in running for president in 2020, but rumors of her candidacy have continued. Sen. Bernie Sanders, another rumored presidential candidate, is expected to address AFT tomorrow. 

Hillary Clinton spoke at the convention yesterday, praising teacher activism and urging those in attendence to vote in November. For more coverage on the AFT conference, follow along on Twitter @madeline_will

Image by Michael Campbell/AFT. Courtesy of the American Federation of Teachers, all rights reserved.

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