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NEA President Van Roekel Makes Historic Address to AFL-CIO

By Kevin Hart

Power comes from unity. That was the message delivered today by National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel when he made history by becoming the first NEA president to address the national AFL-CIO convention.

Van Roekel received a standing ovation from the 1,000 delegates to the AFL-CIO Convention in Pittsburgh, after an introduction in which American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten praised his commitment to working “shoulder to shoulder” with the labor movement on “every major issue facing public education and working families.”

Van Roekel told the convention delegates that now is the time to put aside differences in the labor movement and work toward rebuilding the middle class and making the American dream accessible to all, not just the wealthy.

“You can not have a middle class without labor unions in America,” Van Roekel said to applause.

Much of Van Roekel’s address focused on change – change within the NEA, the larger labor movement, and the American public. He pointed out that the election of President Barack Obama has put a friend of labor in the White House, and it is imperative that unions speak in a unified voice to bring the types of positive change that are now possible.

One of the great success stories has been the National Labor Coordinating Committee, which has brought together the NEA, AFL-CIO and Change to Win to work on issues that matter to all working families. And working families, Van Roekel said, have never needed that unity more.

“Are you satisfied with what America is delivering to the working families in America?” Van Roekel asked delegates, receiving a chorus of "No!" in response. “I’m not.”

In fact, Van Roekel said he hoped the convention’s delegates were “gloriously dissatisfied” with the status of the middle class in American society, because it’s when people can no longer accept the status quo that they are most inclined to take bold action.

That bold action, NEA’s president said, includes fighting for health insurance reform, retirement security, green jobs, and the types of issues that will lift more American families into the middle class.

“Let us be the voice of the uninsured, the unorganized, the dispossessed,” Van Roekel said. “This is our time.”

Later in the afternoon, President Obama addressed the AFL-CIO gathering.  He stressed the importance of the labor movement in establishing the middle class, and the importance of health care reform to maintaining the middle class. 

“Health care can’t wait,” Obama said.  “You know, this isn't just about the millions of Americans who don't have health insurance. It's about the hundreds of millions more who do; Americans who worry that they'll lose their insurance if they lose their job; who fear their coverage will be denied because of a preexisting condition; who know that one accident or illness could mean financial ruin.”


Watch Live Coverage of the AFL-CIO Convention