October 25, 2023 — This year’s convention brought together some of the most influential and powerful leaders in the labor movement. From the labor houses of AFT, SEIU and the AFL-CIO, PEF delegates were given insight and inspiration as the fight continues to make New York state a better place for all workers. Each of the speakers offered not only their support and solidarity, but a reminder of why PEF fights.   

Randi Weingarten: Better Together is more important than ever 

AFT President Randi Weingarten
AFT President Randi Weingarten

On the first full day of convention, President Spence welcomed an all-star lineup of labor leaders to address the delegation. AFT President Randi Weingarten kicked things off.  

“One thing that I know, is that in the absence of having PEF, this state would be in much worse shape. In the absence of PEF, our members would be in much worse shape,” Weingarten said. “Just think about some of the states right now who don’t have unions.”  

Weingarten praised the ability of unions like PEF to be able to disagree, but in the end come together when it is most necessary.  

“I’m going to beg this convention to use the freedom that you have, the voice that you have, to create the democracy that you want,” Weingarten said. “But not just the democracy, the movement that you want, to create what we need to do to make jobs in New York State!”   

While support for unions and labor movements across the country is on the rise, Weingarten points out that there are still active smear campaigns against her and other leaders in the movement, as well as the movement as a whole.   

“Why do they do that? Why do they smear? Because they don’t want a labor movement. They want us to be divided, they want us to be at each other’s throats,” she said. “They don’t want what we’re trying to do. And what are we trying to do? You see it! As part of your convention: Better Together!”  

Weingarten asked PEF members to stay as positive as possible as they continue to fight for better working conditions and fair contracts. As the country divides itself on many things, Weingarten said, union strength and solidarity is more important than ever.  

“You are members of two amazing international unions. But we are at the center of this race between hope and fear. Fear normally wins. Division normally wins,” Weingarten said. “Look at what just happened in Israel and in Palestine. Look at what is happening in Ukraine. But hope and aspiration are what America is about. It’s about making sure that the next generation does better than we do.”  

Mary Kay Henry: Solidarity across diverse backgrounds is our strength  

Service Employees International Union (SEIU), President Mary Kay Henry
SEIU President Mary Kay Henry

President Spence then welcomed the leader of PEF’s other parent union, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), President Mary Kay Henry to the convention stage.   

The leader of more than 2 million SEIU members reminded delegates that despite their varying backgrounds and differences as Americans, the power of unions is rooted in diversity.   

“We owe the strength of our union, the breadth of our vision for the future and the energy and richness of our movement for justice to the incredible diversity, tradition, experience and culture that we bring,” she said. “Our power comes from this amazing cross-racial intergenerational solidarity that we can only build inside our unions.”  

Henry praised PEF members for continuing to advocate for criminal justice reform in the state. Led by President Spence, some members are involved in an SEIU initiative called “Criminal Justice and Us,” which looks at criminal justice reform in New York state through a racial justice lens.  

“Looking ahead to this legislative session, PEF members will be advocating for common sense solutions that allow workers in the criminal justice system to both ensure public safety and to help people who were formerly incarcerated lead productive lives,” Henry said.  

Henry believes that, with PEF members leading the charge, this project could become a national model for other states in the country.  

“Let’s give it up for Gabby Franklyn, Dr. Wanda Bates, Rob Hodson, Diane Jaulus, Sharon Lamb and Catherine Adams,” Henry said, mentioning the PEF leaders who are part of the initiative. “This is no joke in trying to take leadership in this area, and we want to work with you every step of the way.”  

Henry also thanked PEF members for their hard work helping each other out in times of need, referencing the terrible Buffalo storm that threatened the lives of many members last December. That work, Henry said, not only helped to inspire hope for members and workers in New York, but also across the country.  

“We join your call for adequate funding for public services. For wages and working conditions, that attract and retain staff. For fully resourced state services. And for a secure pension that every state worker deserves,” Henry said. “Simply put: Respect us! Protect us! Pay us!”  

“Respect us! Protect us! Pay us!” is an SEIU rallying cry that started in California, when fast food workers were organizing their “Fight for $15” campaign. Henry shared that those workers were inspired by PEF’s actions, and over the past five years have finally been able to negotiate an increase in pay and improve their working conditions.  

“I want you to imagine with me now the way Randi was envisioning the expansion of worker power in the United States of America,” Henry said. “Where we take the amazing public support, that 10% of workers who are lucky enough to have collective bargaining in our union, and throw open the doors of our movement and welcome people in so that we can build the multi-racial power necessary to finally challenge the corporate power hold on our democracy and economy and end and uproot systemic racism once and for all.”  

Mario Cilento: Make the most of PEF 

New York State AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento
New York State AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento

As PEF works to fight back against bullying and hostile work environments, President Spence recalled the help he received from New York State AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento. Cilento got on the phone with the governor as soon as he heard PEF was leading the charge to help organize a meeting with the governor’s office.  

In his remarks, Cilento thanked President Spence for putting PEF in the forefront on much of the state’s initiatives in the labor movement, which benefit all 2.5 million AFL-CIO members in New York. Cilento also asked delegates to remember why they are part of the movement.  

“Close to 24% of workers in this state are organized, so basically 1 out of every 4 workers in this state is a union member, right? That’s twice the national average. One out of every seven union members in the country comes from the state of New York,” Cilento said. “As proud of those numbers as we should be, those numbers, in and of themselves, are useless, and meaningless, and they’re worthless unless everybody is working off of the same page, everybody is working off the same playbook and everybody is coordinating.”  

Unions support other unions, Cilento said, which means that when construction unions need help, PEF, the AFL-CIO, AFT and more all show up.   

“(President Spence) comes to those meetings and on behalf of everybody here, PEF supports that issue or initiative and the rest of the labor movement, who has no real stake in that particular issue, supports them so they can get that legislation passed,” Cilento said. “The same way that private sector unions come through the state AFL-CIO to help us get pension reform.”  

The track record of success when unions work together, Cilento said, is very high. He shared with delegates that a few private sector unions supported recent changes to Tier 6, $25 million in funding for the Department of Labor, and climate legislation that protects public sector work from going private.  

Cilento promised that the New York State AFL-CIO will continue to have the backs of PEF members to make sure that state workers and PEF members are protected and fully supported.   

“I want you to know that your two and a half million brothers and sisters and family members of the New York State AFL-CIO, will never, ever, stand by and let PEF members or any other members of any unions be treated with less than full dignity and respect by any state agency in the state of New York,” he said to cheers. “Because that’s not who we are, and we will never allow that!”