Will the NEA Endorse Hillary Clinton Over Bernie Sanders Without Asking for Anything in Return?

Fred KlonskySeptember 30, 2015

The country's largest union doesn't have a strong track record of extracting concessions from Democrats before endorsing them. (Phil Roeder / Flickr)

With just a few days before the a meet­ing of the Nation­al Edu­ca­tion Association’s (NEA) board of direc­tors in Wash­ing­ton DC, what seemed like a sure thing sev­er­al weeks ago now seems a lit­tle less certain.

The plan was for the lead­ers of the largest teach­ers union in the coun­try to vote for an ear­ly endorse­ment of Hillary Clin­ton for the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty nom­i­na­tion. With the back­ing of NEA Pres­i­dent Lily Eskelsen Gar­cia, the endorse­ment should have been a breeze.

As Annie Karni report­ed in Politi­co has reported,

Top brass of the 3 mil­lion-strong Nation­al Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion, the coun­try’s largest union, are rec­om­mend­ing an endorse­ment of Hillary Clin­ton, accord­ing to an email obtained by POLITI­CO — a move that has many state lead­ers and rank-and-file mem­bers plan­ning to protest the ear­ly endorsement.

The email, sent from the union’s cam­paign office, states that the NEA PAC, the union’s polit­i­cal arm, is plan­ning to hold an upcom­ing vote rec­om­mend­ing Hillary Clin­ton for the pres­i­den­tial primary.

I don’t know what, if any­thing, has been asked for in return for the Clin­ton endorse­ment. But we can look back to past recent endorse­ments for a bit of instruc­tion. Those endorse­ments show us that despite the fact that a union’s main job is bar­gain­ing, polit­i­cal horse-trad­ing has fre­quent­ly been a weak­ness of the NEA.

If the NEA board of direc­tors fol­lows instruc­tions, it would be the sec­ond nation­al teach­ers union to endorse Clin­ton. The ear­li­er Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers endorse­ment was met with crit­i­cism by many pro­gres­sives among their ranks and by those AFT mem­bers feel­ing the Bern.”

But Wein­garten con­trols her union’s endorse­ment pro­ce­dures even more tight­ly than Eskelsen Gar­cia con­trols the NEA. Giv­en the close rela­tion­ship between Wein­garten and Clin­ton (Wein­garten sits on the board of the pro-Clin­ton PAC Pri­or­i­ties USA), there was zero chance the AFT would choose not to endorse her.

Clin­ton does have many sup­port­ers among the rank and file of the NEA. Yet there were plen­ty of Bernie but­tons at the NEA con­ven­tion in Orlan­do last July. And the past week has wit­nessed a grow­ing revolt with­in the union against an ear­ly endorsement.

Politi­co is also report­ing that a group of edu­ca­tors back­ing Sanders claims that 30,000 NEA mem­bers have shown sup­port” for Bernie through his cam­paign web­site or var­i­ous social media sites.”

And at least four NEA affil­i­at­ed state polit­i­cal action com­mit­tees have vot­ed against an ear­ly endorse­ment of Clin­ton, includ­ing New Hamp­shire, Mass­a­chu­setts and the largest NEA PAC, the New Jer­sey Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion. And, of course, Vermont.

Mass­a­chu­setts Teach­ers Asso­ci­a­tion Pres­i­dent Bar­bara Made­loni sent out a mes­sage on Sep­tem­ber 28 to her mem­bers, In con­ver­sa­tion with Pres­i­dent Eskelsen Gar­cía, I have expressed my con­cern that an ear­ly endorse­ment does not allow mem­bers to be active par­tic­i­pants in the kinds of dis­cus­sion and debate that are cen­tral to a demo­c­ra­t­ic union.”

And the hash tag #NoEar­lyEn­dorse­ment, call­ing for the NEA to hold off on any can­di­date endorse­ment, is easy to find on Twitter.

The NEA ear­ly endorse­ment of Clin­ton has echoes of the very ear­ly no-strings NEA endorse­ment of Pres­i­dent Oba­ma in the 2012 elec­tion, but with far less rank-and-file sup­port. The NEA vote to endorse Oba­ma did even­tu­al­ly make it to the floor of the NEA Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Assem­bly for del­e­gate approval. Oba­ma received the sup­port of around 70 per­cent of the delegates. 

How­ev­er, many of us who were del­e­gates at that Chica­go 2011 Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Assem­bly of the NEA won­dered exact­ly what was in it for teach­ers and pub­lic edu­ca­tion to offer the Pres­i­dent our back­ing with no strings attached.

Oba­ma was run­ning unop­posed in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry in 2012. But things were dif­fer­ent in 2008, when Clin­ton and Oba­ma were bat­tling for the nom­i­na­tion. At that time, the NEA made no endorse­ment before the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty con­ven­tion. I was at the Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Assem­bly that year in Philadel­phia where all the Democ­rats who were run­ning in the pri­ma­ry were asked to address the delegates.

Reg Weaver, who was NEA Pres­i­dent at the time, said,

There have been dozens of [can­di­date] debates, but less than a hand­ful of ques­tions about the future role of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment in pub­lic edu­ca­tion. Both Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates have strong records on edu­ca­tion, but our mem­bers want to know about their visions and their plans for the future and we haven’t real­ly heard that yet. If they haven’t made edu­ca­tion a cen­tral part of their cam­paigns, how can we feel con­fi­dent that they will make edu­ca­tion a cen­tral part of their administration?

Pres­i­dent Weaver and the NEA board of direc­tors’ reluc­tance to make a pri­ma­ry choice in 2008 is not shared by the cur­rent NEA nation­al leadership.

Hillary’s elec­tabil­i­ty as Pres­i­dent, as well as her nom­i­na­tion by the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty is by no means assured. As I write this, Clin­ton is only sin­gle dig­its ahead of Bernie Sanders in nation­al polls; a poll in New Hamp­shire and anoth­er in Iowa actu­al­ly found him ahead of Clin­ton.

The push to endorse Clin­ton can’t be based on what we know about the dif­fer­ences between Sanders and Clin­ton: Bernie’s oppo­si­tion to cor­po­rate edu­ca­tion reforms is miles ahead of Hillary’s. Instead, the deci­sion seems to be based on a claim of inevitability.

None of Clinton’s state­ments so far sug­gest that she would break from the cor­po­rate reform polices that have dom­i­nat­ed Obama’s Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion and his Sec­re­tary of Edu­ca­tion, Arne Duncan.

Although del­e­gates vot­ed to sup­port Obama’s re-elec­tion, the NEA’s Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Assem­bly annu­al­ly passed res­o­lu­tions sharply crit­i­cal of Dun­can and the DOE. In 2014, the RA del­e­gates even called for Duncan’s res­ig­na­tion. The dif­fer­ence was that Oba­ma was run­ning for a sec­ond term and was unop­posed in the primaries.

Just going by what we know about Hillary Clinton’s record, in 2016 there are two very dif­fer­ent visions of where the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty should stand on edu­ca­tion. That debate didn’t hap­pen at the nation­al lev­el in 2012.

Elec­tabil­i­ty” is one of the cri­te­ria for endorse­ment that has cre­at­ed a ball and chain for the NEA and its local affil­i­ates, lead­ing the union to sup­port can­di­dates that are not good friends of labor or sup­port­ers of pro­gres­sive social issues. In my home state of Illi­nois, elec­tabil­i­ty is actu­al­ly writ­ten into the Illi­nois Edu­ca­tion Association’s polit­i­cal action com­mit­tee endorse­ment poli­cies as one of the prin­ci­pal cri­te­ria for choos­ing who to endorse. Incum­ben­cy and elec­tabil­i­ty often trumps pol­i­cy and polit­i­cal posi­tions, mean­ing that the IEA and NEA fre­quent­ly fail to endorse pro­gres­sive chal­lengers to Democ­rats like Clin­ton who have tacked far to the right.

Who­ev­er the even­tu­al Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­nee is, the NEA will con­tin­ue to be the nation­al party’s loy­al ser­vant as well to serve as its finan­cial patron, an invest­ment of edu­ca­tion work­ers’ polit­i­cal action com­mit­tee hard-earned dol­lars that have not seen great returns.

There are sev­er­al issues at play. Of course, there are Bernie Sanders sup­port­ers in the NEA who feel that he is the bet­ter choice. Yet there is also is the sense that the ear­ly push for a Hillary endorse­ment rep­re­sents the kind of top-down deci­sion mak­ing that often char­ac­ter­izes lead­er­ship in the NEA and oth­er unions.

Endorse­ments mat­ter. The NEA’s polit­i­cal action com­mit­tees at the state and nation­al lev­els con­tribute mil­lions of dol­lars to can­di­dates. Mem­bers do take into con­sid­er­a­tion NEA endorse­ments when they vote.

It is like­ly that the com­ing meet­ing of the NEA board of direc­tors will do what Pres­i­dent Lily Eskelsen Gar­cia has been lob­by­ing for. Or per­haps there is enough rank-and-file oppo­si­tion to pre­vent it.

Either way, even Hillary sup­port­ers should be ask­ing how it helps teach­ers and pub­lic edu­ca­tion to endorse a can­di­date so ear­ly — and with­out demand­ing any­thing in return.

Fred Klon­sky is a retired art teacher and the for­mer pres­i­dent of the Park Ridge Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion. He blogs at preaprez​.word​press​.com.
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