The American Federation of Teachers, at its biennial convention here, approved a dues increase to pay for stepped-up recruitment and what the union hopes will be more-effective political programs.
The initial hike of almost 6 percent, approved on the second day of the July 20-23 gathering, will finance broader efforts at political mobilization along with what union officials called “the most comprehensive organizing initiative” in the AFT’s history.
With the change, local unions will pay $13.95 a month per member to the national organization, starting this September, and $14.70 starting in September 2007.
Several delegates from Florida spoke against the dues hike, saying higher costs in states with relatively lower salaries would make it more difficult to recruit and keep members. But others argued that the money was needed to strengthen the union.
“We either get stronger or we get weaker in relation to other social and political forces in our society,” said Tom Mooney, the president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers.
Mr. Mooney and others pointed out that the 1.3 million-member union had tightened its belt during the 2005-06 school year, rather than run up a deficit, after it lost about 50,000 teachers in Puerto Rico, whose AFT affiliate ended its ties with the national group. The union also lost hundreds of other members because of job losses in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
The AFT is about half the size of the Washington-based National Education Association, the nation’s largest union, with which it shares many political positions, including a strong tilt toward the Democratic Party. Unlike the NEA, however, the AFT is a member of the AFL-CIO.
Throughout the gathering, which drew some 3,500 delegates, AFT leaders stressed that increased clout at the bargaining table and in the political arena is won by growth—in numbers and in participation of members. And they stressed to delegates what union President Edward J. McElroy called in his keynote address “a golden opportunity” to sweep out Republicans in November’s congressional and gubernatorial elections and to elect a Democratic president in 2008.
‘Activists and Volunteers’
In his July 20 speech, Mr. McElroy urged members to do their part to unseat “those who would undermine the role of government to promote the common good, those who would destroy public education and the union movement, and those who would take away retirement and health-care benefits.”
The union president, who at the convention was re-elected without opposition to his second two-year term, said that membership losses in Puerto Rico and along the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast have partially offset the 68,000 new members won in the last two years. Overall, he said, the union added a net of 35,000 new members, who in addition to K-12 and college teachers include school support personnel and health-care and government workers.
Mr. McElroy sought to portray union membership not so much as a route to services but “as a way to be part of a cause.”
“Unions are built by activists and volunteers,” he told the delegates. “Frankly, we have lost some of that activism as we have relied less on members and volunteers and become bigger, more structured, and dependent upon union staff.”
Amid a welter of resolutions that came to the floor of the convention in the usual way, delegates approved a special measure condemning state-sponsored terrorism in the Middle East and supporting Israel in its actions against Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.
Also approved, with virtually no dissent, was a resolution calling for numerous changes in the federal No Child Left Behind Act, including eased accountability standards for students with disabilities and those whose first language is not English, application of the “highly qualified” standard to teachers providing what are termed “supplemental services” to students, and more monitoring of the quality of state tests used to judge student and school progress.
The AFT initially offered at least passive support for the No Child Left Behind law, which Congress adopted in late 2001, but over the past two school years the union has become increasingly critical of it. On the first day of the convention, the AFT released a report that found that only about half the state tests given as a result of the law’s mandates actually test what states explicitly say students should know. (“Half of State Tests Don’t Draw on State Standards, AFT Study Finds,” July 20, 2006.)