vision 2020

America’s Second-Largest Teachers Union Is Trying Not to Make 2016’s Mistake

Randi Weingarten, presidnet of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), speaking during the Los Angeles school teachers’ strike on January 15, 2019. Photo: Al Seib/LA Times via Getty Images

The nation’s second-largest teachers union is getting ready for 2020. On Tuesday evening, the American Federation of Teachers rolled out its candidate endorsement process to approximately 30,000 members in a tele–town hall, its first major foray into the nascent Democratic-primary race. As outlined on a new website, the process for this presidential cycle will differ in some respects to the union’s previous approach. This year’s approach, which is more transparent and emphasizes internal democracy, indicates that the union intends to take its time before endorsing a candidate. That’s a change from 2015, when the AFT endorsed Hillary Clinton nearly a year before the Democratic National Convention officially crowned her the nominee. The move angered many on the left, who viewed it as a premature display of support for a candidate who ran to the right of her challenger, Senator Bernie Sanders. Clinton, for example, has long supported the charter-school movement, which the union says it opposes. Sanders’s views were murkier during his first primary run, but he’s since emerged as a consistently vocal supporter of the teachers’ walkout wave, which was spurred, in part, by the proliferation of charter schools.

With a plethora of Democrats running in this year’s primary race, AFT’s rank-and-file members are even likelier to split their support among the available options, and the union seems to anticipate that possibility. Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT, told New York on Tuesday evening that the union’s endorsement would unfold as a “four-step process,” partly in response to earlier controversies; she spoke of “trust issues,” which arose from the union’s handling of its 2015 endorsement. “Some of it may be Russian bots, some of it may be from the Bernie camp, because our endorsement was earlier than what is typical,” she speculated.

This year, an official summary states, the first step will be to seek “input” from members, via polling and town halls. Candidates will then interact directly with members. “Members get engaged and get involved. We ensure that people see the candidate and have a candidate who will walk in the life of members and answer questions,” Weingarten explained. Step No. 3, she added, is different.

“Let members get engaged in different campaigns. Let them play for different candidates,” she said. “Let us have a lot of people on the floor of that Democratic convention.”

That’s spelled out explicitly in the AFT’s revamped endorsement process, which encourages members to engage directly with the campaign of their choice before an official endorsement occurs. In addition, the union will require presidential candidates to engage directly and consistently with AFT members before its executive council votes in favor of any endorsement. The union is prepared to host national town halls, and hopes to increase member engagement digitally as well; a summary of the endorsement process floats Facebook Live and Twitter as possible platforms. It goes on to set out specific requirements for presidential candidates. “The AFT will require candidates to engage directly with members in a live event if they wish to be considered for the AFT’s endorsement,” the summary states. Candidates can do that through town halls, or through a new initiative the union also announced on Tuesday evening. A spokesperson for the union said its first-ever “Walk a Day” campaign would give candidates an opportunity to join AFT members in the workplace — possibly by helping to teach a class.

The union says candidates will need to do more than show up to meet members or hand out worksheets to students. They’ll also have to adhere to certain policy standards, the union says, “including but not limited to issues raised” in a 2018 convention resolution. That resolution expresses support for universal health care, “whether single-payer healthcare or Medicare for All,” in addition to free tuition at public colleges, universal cost-free child care, and that “taxation of the rich fully fund IDEA, Title I and state allocations to public colleges and universities.” These commitments may become a stumbling block for the centrists in the race — and rank-and-file educators, who have won a series of major recent labor victories, have no reason to compromise at the moment.

In any year, the AFT’s endorsement is a prize Democratic candidates are eager to claim. The union represents around 1.7 million members, and is a reliable ally to the Democratic Party. But candidates may have to work especially hard to win over the AFT’s members this year. Energized by the Trump presidency and by their participation in the nation’s ongoing wave of educator walkouts, educators are likely to view candidates like Senator Cory Booker, a dedicated proponent of the charter-school movement, with pronounced skepticism. “I want candidates to be talking to not just our leadership but our members. I want them to be able to answer questions. And they will reveal themselves,” Weingarten said. She maintains, though, that there’s a possibility candidates will evolve. Beto O’Rourke, she noted, has evolved on the Affordable Care Act. “Maybe Cory Booker has evolved on the issue of charters. So we’ll see,” she added.

The endorsement process does not specify that a candidate in search of the union’s backing must adhere to its policy resolutions in every respect. Further, the union’s executive council could theoretically endorse someone against the majoritarian wishes of its rank and file, and the union has not traditionally demonstrated itself to be a stickler for ideological purity. While it’s unlikely that affiliates will all agree on a potential endorsement, it also doesn’t make a great deal of sense for the AFT to risk widespread member ire, especially with a mobilized base and so many candidates in the race. It’s far likelier that the union will wait to endorse anyone until a clear front-runner emerges in the weeks before the convention, or that it may even wait until the convention ends with an official nominee in place. The real test of the AFT’s new process, then, will likely come months from now, after members have had a chance to hold declared candidates — and union leadership — to account.

The American Federation of Teachers Is Gearing Up for 2020