What’s behind the AFT’s rush to endorse?

August 19, 2015

New York City teacher Bill Linville, a UFT member and chapter leader at his Bronx high school, explains how the AFT's early presidential endorsement is stirring discontent.

LAST MONTH, with nearly 16 months to go until the 2016 presidential election and almost seven months before the start of party primaries, the Executive Council of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) endorsed Hillary Clinton for president. This came even earlier than other recent AFT presidential endorsements--the union backed Clinton in October 2007 and didn't endorse Barack Obama for re-election until February 2012.

The early endorsement and the top-down process to arrive at it angered many AFT members and union activists. A petition calling on the union to rescind the endorsement got 2,500 signatures within 24 hours.

There are various sources for the discontent among the rank and file. The most obvious is that the AFT leadership only went through the motions--if that--of getting input from members before tapping their favored candidate, Hillary Clinton, the clear choice of the Democratic establishment, over other contenders who are clearly more pro-labor.

But the debate within the union also goes to more basic questions about the AFT's relationship to a party that claims to defend unions and public education, but which has been as enthusiastic as the Republicans in pressing the corporate school "reform" agenda.

AFT President Randi Weingarten
AFT President Randi Weingarten

That reality--and the unanswered questions it poses for the AFT's political strategy--was thrown into sharp relief days after the union's endorsement was announced last month.

During debate in the Senate on legislation to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)--essentially replacing No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the Bush-era attack on public schools--the Democrats, along with their collaborator, Vermont independent Bernie Sanders, almost unanimously supported the Murphy Amendment, which would have kept the harshest punishments of the original law and mandated them on the federal level, instead of leaving these punishments up to the states, as the final version of the new law does. The amendment failed only because of Republican opposition.

Those are the kind of questions the union could be taking up as the 2016 election season gets underway, not anointing the Democratic frontrunner.

AFT PRESIDENT Randi Weingarten sent an e-mail to AFT members which claimed that the union "conducted a phone survey calling more than 1 million members, commissioned a second major poll, and solicited your input online and in person." The AFT also interviewed the three major candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton, Martin O'Malley and Bernie Sanders, and asked them to fill out questionnaires.

If 1 million AFT members (out of a total of 1.6 million) got phone calls, there seems to be little evidence of what they said. The only hard survey information that the AFT has provided is from a poll of 1,150 members who are registered voters.

Weingarten has long maintained a close relationship with Hillary Clinton, which led many to make the same assumption that that author Lois Weiner did at Jacobin: "The process of seeking member opinion was an embarrassingly transparent cover for Weingarten's longstanding desire that Clinton be the AFT's candidate."

As Mike Schirtzer of the Movement of Rank and File Educators pointed , the union could have taken this opportunity to "[engage] the membership in a vibrant discussion on strategies and whether political endorsements are in the best interest of those we serve. AFT could have surveyed every member via e-mail, held town hall meetings in all of the locals."

Instead, the AFT leadership bragged that seven rank-and-file members were invited to ask questions of the candidates, along with the executive council, during interviews in June. And even though they were conducted over a month before the official endorsement--and presumably could have helped the million members who were surveyed to form their own opinions--the interviews weren't released until after the endorsement was announced.

EVEN IF we take Weingarten at her word that the AFT leadership solicited the opinions of the membership as a whole, the fact remains that such an early endorsement misses the ongoing dynamics of the presidential race, which will continue to shape members' opinions. Three Republican candidates have declared since the AFT made its endorsement, and speculation continues that Joe Biden will enter on the Democratic side.

Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders has been narrowing the gap with Hillary Clinton in national polls, meaning that Clinton is no longer the presumptive nominee, as she was when the AFT endorsement was being considered. In the early primary state of New Hampshire, the trend is even starker, as a Huffington Post compilation of recent polls shows. As of mid-August, Sanders and Clinton were in a statistical dead heat, with both at just over 40 percent support.

We can only assume that AFT members would likewise be more sympathetic to Sanders than the national audience, as Sanders continues to hold large rallies around the country and taps into the sentiment of outrage at class inequality and anti-labor attacks.

Beyond the question of whether the AFT's announcement last month accurately reflects the attitude of members, the early endorsement of Hillary Clinton is symptomatic of labor's one-sided relationship with the Democratic Party.

The AFT and other unions provide millions of dollars in union dues and countless volunteer hours from members to support Democratic, but can exert no real pressure on them when they are elected. Case in point: The disappointing record of the Obama administration, which has only built on the disastrous neoliberal policies of Bush's NCLB initiative.

Obama's Race to the Top program bribed state governments during the worst years of the economic crisis to accept sweeping changes in education law, tying teacher evaluations to test scores and pushing through Common Core curriculum and an expansion of punitive high-stakes testing. Additionally, Democrats on the state and local level have been central proponents of neoliberal reforms, from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to Mayor Rahm Emanuel's attack on the Chicago Teachers Union.

The union's FAQ on the Clinton endorsement justifies the early decision by claiming: "In order to best affect the debate, the AFT and our members must engage now. Not only do the members support the AFT making an endorsement in the primaries, but the timing is right for an endorsement. We need to engage now to ensure that our members, their families and those they serve have the strongest possible voice in the election."

But how does handing out an endorsement with minimal to no demands placed on the candidates help give labor "the strongest possible voice"? On the contrary, the endorsement seems more likely to condition members to temper their expectations about the types of demands we should be making to reverse the assault on public education.

AT THE very least, national teacher unions could be using the election cycle to put forward proposals for a new direction--starting with legislation that ends the era of federally-mandated high-stakes testing of No Child Left Behind.

NCLB could be replaced with a federal initiative that would provide support, instead of punishment, to the schools that need it, with the aim of alleviating educational inequality. The initiative could aim to lower class sizes, equalize funding for public education and challenge school segregation, for starters.

But the candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, as well as the party as a whole, have been on the wrong side of NCLB all along.

Though Clinton has yet to spell out a detailed education policy, she has been a supporter of charter schools and merit pay in the past. As a senator, she voted in favor of NCLB in 2001. As her interview with the AFT Executive Council makes clear, she hasn't backed off from the core of NCLB's test-based accountability system:

I do think that Senators Murray and Alexander struck the right balance in the Every Child Achieves Act by continuing to maintain the federal requirement for annual statewide testing in grades 3-8, but ensuring that accountability for improving schools will be based on multiple measures of performance.

As for Bernie Sanders, while he has outlined a significantly more progressive agenda than Clinton, he voted last month for the bill to replace NCLB, called the Every Child Achieves Act. He also supported the Murphy Amendment to retain NCLB's harshest punishments in the new law.

Education expert Diane Ravitch described the amendment as a "detailed prescription for reporting on student tests results for 'meaningfully differentiating among all public schools' (i.e., grading schools), including publicly identifying the lowest 5 percent, and among interventions, potentially firing staff and offering students the option to transfer to other schools and using part of the budget to pay for the transportation."

Because the amendment didn't pass, the Senate's Every Child Achieves Act leaves it up to individual states to decide which schools are "failing", and what to do about these schools.

Many AFT members who expressed outrage at the union's endorsement of Hillary Clinton support Sanders. An AFT Members for Bernie Sanders page had 765 supporters as of this writing. With Sanders' call for a $15 an hour minimum wage, a massive jobs program, taxing the rich, expanding union membership and more, it is no wonder that many educators are looking to his campaign, like many other people who want a radical change that isn't being offered by the mainstream candidates.

But Sanders supporters, inside the AFT and outside it, need to look more closely at his disappointing support for measures such as the Murphy Amendment. Though Sanders is officially an independent, he has caucused with the Democrats for years, and his campaigns in Vermont are unchallenged by the Democratic Party as a consequence. What's more, he has promised to support whatever candidate is nominated by the Democrats if he loses, as he almost certainly will.

SANDERS' STANCE underlines the fact that the assault on public education has been thoroughly bipartisan.

The Democratic Party is controlled by the same interests that have pushed through charter schools and privatization. The party tolerates figures who criticize the neoliberal agenda, but these defenders of public education find that rather than moving the Democrats to the left, the Democrats pull them to the right. Sanders, with his support for the Murphy Amendment, is a clear example.

A New York Times article last March speculated that Hillary Clinton's education policy would represent a triangulation between the teachers' unions and "a group of wealthy and influential Democratic financiers who staunchly support many of the same policies--charter schools and changes to teacher tenure and testing--that the teachers' unions have resisted throughout President Obama's two terms in office."

The movement for education justice needs to set its sights higher than this--or than the latest compromise to replace NCLB, which the AFT and NEA both supported.

Too often, though, our union leaderships have sought backroom deals with politicians in the hopes of stemming the neoliberal tide. Instead, this strategy has led to unprecedented and escalating attacks on public education, teachers and the 99 Percent as a whole.

By contrast, movements that have had some success at asserting themselves in the public debate and even winning some changes--for example, the LGBT equality struggle, the Black Lives Matter movement, the testing opt-out campaign and Occupy Wall Street--have done so not by aligning their demands with the politicians, but making politicians respond to their demands.

Instead of supporting Democratic Party politicians, our union resources should be dedicated to education justice struggles like the growing opt-out movement, to organizing unorganized charter schools--and to fighting for better lives for educators, and the parents and students that we serve.

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