“We have a long history of showing up. Showing up for freedom, showing up for democracy, showing up for education, both here and abroad.”
This is what American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten told Nicole Wallace of MSNBC News about why she led a delegation to Lviv, Ukraine this month to meet with Ukrainian educators, trade unionists, medical workers and others engaged in the life and death struggle for Ukraine’s survival against Russian aggression.
The AFT’s history of showing up is longstanding in Central and Eastern Europe. It dates to efforts before, during and after World War II to save trade unionists from fascist and communist tyranny in the region. As well, the AFT was the most active international union among AFL-CIO and international trade secretariat affiliates supporting the Solidarity trade union movement in Poland, both during the decade of martial law repression as well as the country’s dramatic transition from Soviet-imposed communism to democracy in 1988-89.
In addition to providing financial and other material support to Solidarity and an organization of underground educators, one action is worth noting in the current context of the trip to Ukraine. The AFT’s then- and future presidents, Albert Shanker and Sandra Feldman, led a high-level American delegation to an unauthorized conference in Nowa Huta, Poland in 1988 that brought together international human rights and trade union leaders with their Polish and Eastern European counterparts. The two leaders, together with the leader of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, were able to provide on-the-ground solidarity, counsel and support to trade unionists during a new national strike wave of Polish workers demanding an end to martial law restrictions and a more democratic future. Out of such efforts, the AFT organized a range of support over the next two decades for emerging free teacher unions not only in Poland but also in other post-communist countries.
The AFT’s showing up meant a lot to the promotion of democracy and free trade unionism in the region. No prior AFT solidarity action, however, had entailed going to a country during wartime.
The eight-member delegation, which included an AFL-CIO representative and Dr. Irwin and Karen Redlener of the Ukraine Children’s Action Project, experienced first-hand some of the danger that Ukrainians have faced since Russia launched its brutal war against their nation on February 24, 2022. The group went to Lviv just as Russia began launching the most intense daily missile and drone barrages since the beginning of the war, which has yet to let up. The missiles and drones are aimed mostly at civilian targets throughout the country. Just prior to the delegation’s arrival, one of the first missiles hit an energy plant in Lviv, causing blackouts. On October 10 alone, 84 strikes across the country killed twenty people, severely wounded 108 more, and damaged 205 homes, buildings, energy facilities and civilian infrastructure .
With their teacher union hosts, delegation members waited out air raid warnings in underground shelters. One message was clear to adults and children alike, as it has been from the beginning of the war: not even a western city located 750 miles from the main eastern front is safe from attack. More ominously, Russia’s stated war aims are to destroy as much energy and other civilian infrastructure as possible prior to winter to inflict the maximum amount of civilian suffering and deaths. (More than 400 energy and other civilian targets have been struck since October 10, damaging a third of Ukraine’s energy production.) Russian state television propagandists openly state that war aims are to freeze and starve the general population as punishment for resisting Russian occupation.
Russia’s war strategy is genocidal in nature: to destroy Ukraine as an independent nation as well as any resistance to Russian control over its territory. The wholesale destruction of Mariupol in the spring, in which tens of thousands were killed and many more forcibly removed to filtration camps is the most extreme example of the lengths Russia has gone. But all of its means have been extreme, as war crime on war crime and crime against humanity on crime against humanity has been revealed over the last eight months. Such barbarous tactics have only hardened Ukrainian resolve to force back the Russian troops from all of its territory, a resolve reflected by the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, in his nightly addresses to the nation. Every Ukrainian knows what continued Russian occupation of any of its territory means: more war and more aggression for the future.
Arriving in Lviv in wartime to show support for teachers, medical workers, trade unionists and other Ukrainians was thus a significant act of international solidarity. For the Ukrainian teachers, the meaning was clear as well: they know they are not forgotten. “We don’t want to be abandoned,” said the leader of the Trade Union of Education and Science Workers of Ukraine (TUESWU), Georgi Trukhanov, explaining his invitation to Randi Weingarten to meet in Lviv.
A similar sentiment had been expressed during a previous trip by President Weingarten to Poland in April when she met with both Polish and Ukrainian teacher representatives. From that time, the AFT had raised significant funds for humanitarian relief and organized a 15-member teacher delegation from 11 affiliates to provide English-a-second-language instruction for Ukrainian refugee children at a summer camp organized by the Polish Teachers Union (ZTN). The AFT hosted the leader of another independent teacher union at its convention. The October 10-12 trip was a fulfillment of a larger promise to both the ZTN and the TUESWU to return to Poland and to visit Ukraine itself to meet teachers who are keeping schooling alive for a country torn asunder by war.
Russia’s military has targeted the destruction of not only basic civilian infrastructure like housing, power plants and water pipes, but also schools and universities, the very means of teaching a nation. Nearly three hundred schools and universities have been destroyed and two thousand four hundred have been severely damaged ― just part of the hundreds of billions of dollars of damage inflicted by Russia.
During the trip, the AFT could provide just some small measure in return: $100,000 in computers, other education supplies, and humanitarian aid. The Ukraine Children’s Action Project is organizing both medical assistance and efforts to help children and teachers to deal with the trauma of war and displacement. More significantly, the delegation discussed ongoing ways of support and ongoing contacts, including through school-to-school and classroom-to-classroom contacts, and helping foster international trade union and government efforts to restoring and rebuilding the education system.
Maintaining the education system during wartime is a major act of national defiance and resistance. For many teachers, online education has been the only way of instruction. Three thousand schools operate only online. (Weingarten reported that instruction was taking place even in the air raid shelters.) Meeting outside of the shelter, teachers shared with the delegation the many challenges faced not just in maintaining regular education but also in keeping contact with students who have been forced out of their homes as refugees or internally displaced person through online gatherings. The scale is immense: there are 6.5 million refugees and a similar number of internally displaced persons, or a quarter of the population.
Teachers who came from occupied parts of the country shared the most harrowing challenge: maintaining in-person instruction in Ukrainian in places hidden from Russian authorities. Everyone knew arrest and torture awaited those caught. The challenges will remain daunting for the entire country as Russia is unrelenting in its attacks. A harsh winter looms to test even more the ability of teachers to maintain instruction in any part of the country.
As were the stakes in World War II, the stakes in Ukraine’s struggle for its independence and freedom are large. “We are fighting for freedom, for democracy, for the West,” President Volodymyr Zelensky has said often. Certainly, all countries on Russia’s border have feared further aggression if Ukraine does not successfully resist Russia’s occupation with the help of support from the NATO alliance and other countries. Putin’s murderous nationalism that seeks to re-unite formerly conquered territories and nations is little different than what propelled the Axis powers in World War II. Indeed, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is the first major war of territorial expansion in Europe since World War II. If it is not defeated, Russia will shatter the post-war international security order built after that conflict that ― until now — has prevented a new world conflict.
As Congressman Jamie Raskin has put it, “Ukrainians today give the democratic world a chance for a critical and historic victory; we must rally to their side . . . and win.” It will be necessary to maintain a united alliance of support, including in the U.S., for that to be the case.
But just as it was not only Allied governments that waged the war for freedom in World War II, it is not only the international coalition and assistance of governments providing military and economic assistance that is essential to helping Ukraine emerge from the battlefield as an independent and democratic nation.
An often forgotten legacy of the American labor movement is the role it played in aiding free trade union leaders during the war and in rebuilding the foundations of free trade unionism in Western Europe after World II. That international solidarity helped the European trade union movement institutionalize democratic freedoms and, over time, ensure a measure of prosperity for European workers. International solidarity of labor movements will certainly be critical not only to help Ukraine survive but also rebuild and help institutionalize democratic freedoms. Just as industrialists on both sides of the Atlantic tried to resist the rebuilding of free trade unionism in Europe, there are those serving ideological, financial and corrupt interests who are using the opportunity of war-time restrictions to try to permanently restrict the essential rights of freedom of association and collective bargaining. Legislation has currently suspended these rights for 75 percent of the workforce, reversing the development of more cooperative labor relations. The AFT joined the Solidarity Center of the AFL-CIO in protesting these restrictions and pledged to assist the Ukrainian trade union movement in resisting efforts to make these laws permanent and in ensuring respect for standards enshrined in the International Labour Organization and the European Union.
Of course, in regard to Ukraine’s survival and rebuilding, “Education is a particularly essential part of the struggle,” as Weingarten told Nicole Wallace. She continued, “The war’s effect on kids and families has been brutal. The Ukrainian teachers’ persistence, compassion and bravery in helping students continue their learning in an active war zone should be lifted up and championed.”
Randi Weingarten and the AFT are continuing the union’s “long history of showing up” for freedom, democracy and education. As in previous struggles, it is international solidarity that Ukrainian teachers and their trade unions must count on.
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For those wishing to aid the AFT’s ongoing efforts in support of Ukraine’s teachers, go to its Disaster Relief Center page and click the box to direct contributions to Ukraine.
As well, contributions can be made to the Ukraine Children’s Action Project (link). “UCAP is working with schools and special programs in Ukraine and Poland to implement special enrichment sessions for Ukrainian children and support remote learning hubs to make sure that displaced children who aren’t able to attend in-person school are able to continue efforts to continue studies through high quality, on-line access to virtual learning.”