On Saturday, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) announced that its executive council “overwhelmingly” endorsed Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination for president. It did so, the official announcement says, on the basis of interviews (not released to members) and the results of a poll.
The decision couldn’t be more wrongheaded, and it’s one that members should demand the union executive council rescind. We should propose instead a decision reached by a very different process: a referendum of members that follows and is informed by debate in union outlets.
Every local should be charged by the executive council with providing space and place for members to air their opinions. The national union should encourage use of its magazine and website for this debate. In this discussion the leadership will have the opportunity to persuade members that endorsing Clinton is the wisest choice, but it will be obligated to carry out the will of the membership as expressed in the referendum.
What is most destructive in the AFT’s endorsement of Clinton is that it has disempowered members at precisely the moment when we most need revitalized teachers unions to save a system of education that is being destroyed as a public good by powerful elites and the politicians they control.
Instead, a rushed decision was made without any semblance of legitimacy. The questions and answers about the process offer few specifics except that the national union conducted polls of members and interviews with (some) candidates. According to the union, the endorsement was made based on this information, though people who know Washington politics have been aware for many years of the public love fest between AFT President Randi Weingarten and Clinton. The process of seeking member opinion was an embarrassingly transparent cover for Weingarten’s longstanding desire that Clinton be the AFT’s candidate.
Not all executive council members approved of this endorsement, though how individuals voted has not been revealed to members. We have a right to know how leaders voted and should demand this information.
While Weingarten holds much responsibility for handling this endorsement, as if it were hers to make, the executive council members are equally responsible. Those who supported the endorsement supported it on behalf of members without having consulted their own constituencies, let alone the national union membership. Their shameful actions should also be called to account.
Bernie Sanders’s teacher supporters are probably the most outraged by the endorsement. They understand that Clinton supports the bipartisan policies that have deprofessionalized teaching and made public education a profit center for transnational corporations like Pearson.
But even those who think the AFT should support Clinton should be disturbed by this endorsement because it undercuts the union’s power. A fully democratic endorsement process would truly inform and mobilize members, strengthening the union nationally and locally, making us stronger in the election and beyond.
Weingarten and too many members think we can rely on cozy relationships with politicians and powerful elites to defend our schools, our jobs, our economy, and democracy. We can’t. Only an engaged membership that understands the grave crisis public education, and democracy, faces is going to be able to turn back our opponents — who include Clinton and her Wall Street supporters.
We have a moral and political obligation to insist that AFT executive council members stand up for a different kind of unionism, one in which members are empowered and can exert democratic control over the policies that shape their lives, schools and communities.
Lois Weiner is the author The Future of Our Schools: Teachers Unions and Social Justice (Haymarket, 2012). An independent researcher and consultant, she writes widely on education and teachers unions.