AFT members to drive presidential endorsement
Randi Weingarten, AFT president and her executive board were criticized in the last general election for endorsing Clinton without a membership vote. | Damian Dovarganes/AP

WASHINGTON—This time around, members of the American Federation of Teachers will drive its presidential endorsement process – and it’s going to demand Oval Office hopefuls walk in teachers’ shoes, too.

The March 20 decision came after a 30,000-person mass conference call convened the night before by AFT President Randi Weingarten to hash out the details, explain the proposed plan and – most importantly – get feedback.

That’s not what happened in 2015-16, when Weingarten and the union board approved an early endorsement of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the White House, over the objections of supporters of her main challenger, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt.

“There was a lot of uproar over that,” one local union president said recently. “A lot of people were very unhappy.”

This time, AFT hopes they won’t be.

The endorsement of the 1.7-million-member union, one of the two largest in the AFL-CIO, is important. Teachers, from both AFT and the even larger and independent National Education Association, are not only politically active but also trusted by parents and voters.

That trust came through in the success of bottom-up, parent-led forced teacher strikes over the last 12 months, starting in West Virginia and spreading to Arizona, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Denver (twice), Los Angeles, Oakland, Calif., and even to unionized charter schools in Chicago and Ohio.

And while the West Virginia parents, students, and teachers shut down every school in the state for nine days in 2018, and won, they had to walk out again when the GOP-run legislature tried to take back the gains this year. The legislature caved, after nine hours.

Those strikes were not primarily around pay, but about conditions affecting the students: Crumbling buildings, outdated textbooks, money for education diverted to tax cuts for the rich and pay so low that it forced teachers to take second and third jobs, flee low-paying systems or drop out of the profession altogether. The forced walkouts enhanced teachers’ credibility.

The union will put that on the line with a more credible process for deciding among the Democratic contenders next year, Weingarten said.

“Our #1 goal is to elect a president who reflects our values and that means beating Donald Trump in 2020,” Weingarten said. “But to win our endorsement, candidates will have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. As we look ahead to Election Day, we are committed to engaging our members at every step of the way.”

Literally. The union is inviting every hopeful – Sanders included — “to spend a day in the shoes of an AFT member.”

Its AFT Votes website will also refer to a formal candidate questionnaire, host member surveys, set up focus groups, provide informational videos and foster “unprecedented member involvement in campaigns,” the union said. That includes arranging “town halls, social media forums, and other opportunities to participate in the democratic process to decide who will receive the union’s grass-roots and financial support as November 2020 draws closer.”

“We will work together to get to know the candidates and look for a leader who shares our values, has a likelihood of winning and is committed to helping all of us achieve a better life, a voice at work and power in our democracy,” Weingarten said.


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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