Connecticut primary: Teacher of the Year campaigns for Congress
Jahana Hayes with crowd of supporters | Twitter

WATERBURY, Conn.–A National Teacher of the Year – and a committed unionist – wants to come to Capitol Hill.

And National Education Association member Jahana Hayes, a social studies teacher who accepted the 2018 award from Democratic President Barack Obama in 2016, is one of seven unionists on primary ballots for top posts in three states on August 14.

Randy Bryce (Randy Bryce for Congress)

While Hayes seeks the Democratic nomination for an open congressional seat in the Danbury-Waterbury-New Britain 5th Congressional District, three other unionists are running for governor elsewhere. Another seeks Connecticut’s lieutenant governor’s chair and Ironworker Randy Bryce (D) is trying to succeed U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R) in southern Wisconsin.

  • Rep. Tim Walz, DFL-Minn., an Education Minnesota member, high school teacher and military veteran, and state legislator Erin Murphy, who is also the Minnesota Nurses Association/ National Nurses United executive director, are two of the three candidates vying for the DFL gubernatorial nod to succeed retiring pro-worker DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.

As a result, Education Minnesota, the joint AFT-NEA affiliate and the state’s largest union, backs Walz. Murphy has Dayton, the state party, the Service Employees and AFSCME in her corner. The third candidate in the race is state Attorney General Lori Swenson, whose running mate is pro-worker Rep. Richard Nolan, DFL-Minn., from the state’s unionist-heavy Iron Range.

Meanwhile, former Minnesota AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Julie Blaha, a self-described “high school nerd” and middle-school math teacher, picked up the DFL party endorsement for State Auditor, but must still win the primary, too.

  • Next door, Mahlon Mitchell, former president of the Wisconsin Fire Fighters, seeks the Democratic nod there to take on right-wing GOP Gov. Scott Walker this fall. Mitchell was the unsuccessful Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor in a special recall election against Walker in 2012.

Unions and their allies pushed the recall after Walker jammed his infamous anti-union Act 10 through the GOP-heavy legislature in 2011, defying up to 100,000 people protesting in below-zero temperatures among snowdrifts in February in the streets of Madison. Mitchell, who has his union’s enthusiastic support, faces seven other Democrats.

And Ironworkers’ legislative activist Bryce seeks the southern Wisconsin’s U.S. House seat Ryan is leaving. Bryce attracted so much attention – and money – early on that his candidacy, the first serious challenge to Ryan in years, helped push the Speaker to retire.

Hayes isn’t the only unionist who brought the house down at the Connecticut state fed convention.

Service Employees organizer Eva Bermudez-Zimmerman announced her candidacy for the state’s #2 job three days before the state Democratic Party convention, got 40 percent of the vote, and didn’t stop running.

“You know me because you know yourselves,”  Bermudez-Zimmerman told the AFL-CIO convention. SEIU “members get up at 5 am, work hard, but don’t make enough to live on,” she said. Calling for a “blue wave” she urged the delegates to stand for working class values, and “represent something beyond yourself.” She would be the first Puerto Rican statewide elected official.

Hayes, who won two enthusiastic standing ovations at the state AFL-CIO convention, is an 11-year NEA member after first, as an African-American single mother, gaining a job at the Southbury Training School and joining SEIU Hospital and Health Care Workers 1199. She says her union jobs lifted her out of poverty. If she wins the open congressional seat, she would be the first African-American woman U.S. representative from Connecticut.

Before winning the training school job, Hayes told the delegates that her boss at a non-union shop forced her to constantly work double shifts, even though she was a young single mother. Her boss said if she didn’t like it she could leave.  “Instead, I found my union sisters and brothers,” in 1199 at Southbury Training School, she said.  Their fight won compensatory pay for mandatory overtime.

“I will never forget what unions have done for me. I know why we have a 40-hour work week, minimum wages, safety protections. Together we raised our voices.”

“We can’t let up, we can’t let go, we can’t stop fighting,” she said. “Hold leaders accountable every time  they take our power away.  The most important power is the power of the ballot.”

The state fed convention adopted an “Invest in Workers Agenda to Combat Income Inequality Within the First 100 Days of the 2019 Session,” including paid family and medical leave – a longtime cause of veteran U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat from New Haven — and raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

As might be expected, Hayes puts improving education at the top of her priorities and her website. She declared her teachers inspired her to escape childhood poverty – and so she  inspires her students to go out and serve the community. Those efforts helped garner her the Teacher of the Year Award from the National Council of State School Officers, with Obama giving it.

The satisfaction that comes from watching “students take ownership of their community is unmatched,” said Hayes on her website.

“Teachers exposed me to a different world by letting me borrow books to read at home and sharing stories about their college experiences,” she added. “So many things that [teachers do] fall outside of traditional teaching responsibilities. It is those times when I am transformed into an advisor, counselor, confidant and protector.”

But she also campaigns for other progressive causes, including the Fight for 15 and Medicare for All. Her opponent in the primary, Mary Glassman, endorses strengthening the Affordable Care Act.

As a result, Hayes has an enormous list of unions and progressive organizations in her corner. They include the NEA, its Connecticut affiliate, the Teachers (AFT), AFSCME Council 4, Auto Workers District 9A, Teamsters Local 67, the Service Employees,  and the Working Families Party. Glassman has Our Revolution and, narrowly, the state Democratic Party. She beat Hayes on the second ballot at the state convention.

Progressives in Connecticut are taking no chances on divisions lasting after the primary is over, in the district or anywhere else.

On Sept. 8, dozens of union, community, non-profit and faith-based organizations will unite around their common issues to prepare to register voters and get out the vote for the general election in November, in order to prevent an anti-union Republican takeover of the state. The Thousands of Doors for Justice will take place simultaneously in seven cities, connected by livestream with a message of joining together for social justice.

(Joelle Fishman, an organizer of the Thousands of Doors for Justice, contributed material for this story.)

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.