Teaching Profession

Teachers’ Unions Flex Political Muscles as Election Nears

By David J. Hoff — October 16, 1996 10 min read


Greg Smith, a full-time substitute teacher here, has transformed himself into a part-time political operative. And he has a lot of bases to cover as he leads a meeting of teachers from throughout the school district.

He needs volunteers at a local union hall to phone other teachers and sing the praises of candidates like Mark Longabaugh, who is running against a rookie Republican congressman, and Catherine L. Barrett, a Democrat. She is challenging a state legislator who sponsored a bill to make Ohio teachers work five years longer to earn a full pension. He wants workers to help Mr. Longabaugh’s campaign distribute pamphlets door to door.

And he would like these teachers to stop by fund-raisers for Mr. Longabaugh and Ms. Barrett. Ohio residents get a tax credit for a $50 donation to a candidate for a state office, he reminds the group.

“It’s just like an interest-free loan to Catherine until you get your tax refund,” he says.

He needs even more volunteers for a massive pamphlet drop by the AFL-CIO in the two days before the Nov. 5 elections. And he also makes what is probably the most important pitch of the day: Sign your people up to give $2 a paycheck, or $24 a year, to the Committee on Political Education, the local union’s political-action committee.

The money and the volunteer work drive the local, state, and national political work that has put teachers’ unions front and center in this year’s presidential campaign. Last year the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers collected about $26,000, an average of $6 a member, for the campaign-finance arm. Nationwide, the money adds up to $2 million in political donations the American Federation of Teachers will give candidates in 1995 and 1996.

The larger National Education Association, which has been in Republicans’ cross hairs since before the GOP national convention, will donate about $3 million, with the bulk of it going to Democrats.

Political activity by teachers’ unions has long been a fixture of federal, state, and local campaigns. But this year, the candidates and the unions have upped the ante.

Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole has attacked the unions as putting their own interests ahead of school reform and called President Clinton the NEA’s “pliant pet.” And the unions, besides pushing to re-elect Mr. Clinton, are working to overturn the Republican majorities in Congress and roll back many of the state electoral gains the GOP made in 1994.

The attacks have both called into question the unions’ motives and helped set up a test of their political muscle.

A High-Stakes Year

In Cincinnati, the president of the CFT says that 15 percent of his members are “boilerplate, ideological right-wing folks.” Even more call themselves moderate Republicans.

But Tom Mooney is urging them, and the rest of the 4,000 members of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, to vote next month with their wallets and their careers foremost in their minds.

Ignore the local congressman’s stand on abortion, he recommends. Remember his vote to slash the federal Title I remedial education programs almost 20 percent and the consequences it could have had on the program you helped build in your school.

Forget the state representative’s position on gun control, he says. Notice his plan to require you to teach 35 years before getting the pension you now earn in 30 years, he tells them.

“This is a year to vote for your job and your profession,” Mr. Mooney told a meeting of CFT building representatives earlier this month. “It’s not the year to vote on other issues you feel strongly about.”

That advice goes for every spot on the ballot, from president down to state legislators, and it will arrive over and over to the more than 3 million members of the NEA and the aft in phone calls, mailings, and advertising this fall.

The unions’ activity is especially intense here in Ohio, where President Clinton and Mr. Dole are battling for the state’s highly prized 21 electoral votes. Many political observers say Mr. Dole cannot win if he does not carry Ohio.

Legislative fortunes are also at stake in the nation’s seventh most populous state. Two years ago, the GOP captured four U.S. House seats from Democrats and won a majority in both state chambers for the first time in 20 years.

Mr. Mooney, the CFT, and the Ohio Federation of Teachers are doing everything they can to reverse the midterm tide that swept Republicans into power--even though their organizations say that, officially, they ignore a candidate’s party affiliation when deciding where to put their considerable resources. The national headquarters of the AFT and the NEA also are providing staff members and loads of literature here.

More than in years past, the unions go into this year’s electioneering with pride on the line.

“A lot of people woke up the day after [the 1994 elections] and said: ‘What the hell happened?’” said Lee Hedgepith, the NEA’s political operative assigned to organize in Ohio.

Can They Deliver?

But how much the unions will deliver at the ballot box is questionable. Many Cincinnati-area teachers say they’re not swayed by union politicking. (“NEA Members Say They Have a Mind of Their Own on How To Vote,” This Week’s News.)

Forty percent of union members say they vote Republican, according to one political scientist here.

“It’s very difficult for unions to deliver a lot of extra votes anymore,” said Alfred Tuchfarber, a political science professor at the University of Cincinnati and the director of the Ohio Poll. “Unions in general have fallen down in the ability to bring votes, but they can still bring workers and money.”

Cincinnati Republicans say they aren’t nervous about the unions’ activities.

“We’ve got tremendous support from the grassroots,” said U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, a freshman being challenged by Mr. Longabaugh, who is backed by both unions.

In addition to the teacher unions’ opposition, the AFL-CIO--which is making a huge push to elect a Democratic Congress--has concentrated a portion of its national advertising campaign on publicizing Mr. Chabot’s 1995 votes to cut federal education spending.

“They’ve run so many negative ads that the people in my district are turned off by the ads and don’t believe them,” Mr. Chabot said.

But NEA and aft leaders say their members are paying especially close attention to the campaigns this fall.

The Republicans’ tough anti-union rhetoric, from Mr. Dole at the national convention down to state legislators like Rep. Michael Fox, who chairs the education committee in the Ohio House, has union members “mad and mobilized,” according to a button the NEA is distributing to its members.

“Bob Dole helped us out,” said Mary Elizabeth Teasley, the NEA’s national director of government relations. Even Republican teachers “saw [his speech] as a vicious attack on the teaching profession,” she said, not as an indictment of union power.

And state initiatives--such as Mr. Fox’s crusade for vouchers and the pension overhaul proposed by GOP state Rep. Dale Van Vyven, who is being opposed by Ms. Barrett --will make it easier for teachers’ unions to deliver votes from members who otherwise might vote Republican, local officials say. Under Mr. Van Vyven’s plan, teachers would have to work 35 years instead of 30 to get full pension benefits.

“All I have to say is ’35 and out, vouchers and privatization,’” said Mr. Smith, the CFT organizer, who is working as a substitute two days a week and being paid by the AFT for his campaign work the other three. “Those things strike a chord with educators.”

Rallying the Troops

In Columbus, the state capital, Mr. Hedgepith does many of the same chores for the NEA. He sits in a bare cubicle in the Ohio Education Association’s downtown headquarters. Three photocopied maps--one each outlining congressional, state Senate districts, and state House seats--hang on the walls of his temporary space.

With a yellow marker, he’s highlighted the congressional districts, like the one where Mr. Longabaugh is challenging Mr. Chabot, where Mr. Hedgepith is concentrating his efforts.

In those areas, each of the 35,000 NEA members will receive a call from a volunteer in the next few weeks. “It’s almost a reminder to say: ‘These are the issues that affect us and our jobs,’” Mr. Hedgepith said.

The calls will go throughout the state, but will be concentrated in areas where NEA-supported candidates have the best chance of pulling off upsets. Mr. Hedgepith’s maps are dotted in yellow across the southern and eastern portion of the state, but virtually blank in western Ohio, a Republican stronghold.

In Mr. Chabot’s district, the NEA has 1,800 members who work in the school districts surrounding the CFT’s territory in Cincinnati. In the rural half of southern Ohio, the NEA has 6,700 members in the district where former Democratic Rep. Ted Strickland is trying to reclaim the seat he lost to Republican Rep. Frank Cremeans in a close election two years ago.

To reach those members, Mr. Hedgepith has the help of two other NEA headquarters organizers, who will be stationed in regional offices. Twenty-two full-time local employees of the nea, called Uniserve directors, will also pitch in across the state.

The organizations run by Mr. Smith and Mr. Hedgepith are fairly typical of the NEA’s and the AFT’s efforts throughout the nation this fall.

The 2.2 million-member NEA has assigned 57 staff members from its headquarters in Washington to work on campaigns in 26 states, Ms. Teasley said. Some, like Mr. Hedgepith, have been in the field since early September. Others are only getting to their destinations now.

The 900,000-member AFT assigned 20 headquarters employees to work in selected states and loaned 23 workers to the AFL-CIO to work on voter registration for the umbrella labor organization’s 13 million members, according to Elizabeth Smith, the AFT’s national political director. (The AFT, unlike the National Education Association, is a member of the AFL-CIO.)

The AFT is paying the salaries of Mr. Smith of the Cincinnati union and of three other local officials to work on the campaigns.

All the two unions’ political workers are engaged in the bread-and-butter activities of grassroots campaigning: reaching members on the phone or through the mail, offering information about candidates the unions are supporting, and asking them to get involved.

And the AFT has paid for advertising through the AFL-CIO and on its own.

Over the summer, the union ran television, radio, and newspaper ads in Cincinnati calling the state House education chairman “the Fox guarding the chicken coop.”

“Michael Fox voted to give away our tax dollars to private schools in Cleveland,” the newspaper ad said, referring to his support of the pilot voucher program for low-income children in that city.

Although the AFT sees Mr. Fox as a safe bet for re-election and does not plan to work against him this fall, it wanted to warn other legislators that they would be subjected to similar attacks if they push for vouchers as hard as Mr. Fox has, said Jamie Horwitz, a spokesman at union headquarters.

“I’ve established contact with the voters,” said Mr. Fox, who has represented the area north of Cincinnati for 22 years. “For the legislators who haven’t, it’s an incredible power to deal with.”

Issues and Parties

The NEA is not doing any mass-market advertising this fall, one sign that it is trying to soften its partisan edge.

“Our members don’t care about party, and they don’t want us to be a partisan,” Ms. Teasley said. “They want us focused on issues.”

Despite the new tone, the NEA has again come down on the side of Democrats almost exclusively. Delegates at its annual convention overwhelmingly endorsed Mr. Clinton in July, and its political-action committee favored Democrats with 99.6 percent of the $1.3 million it donated to congressional candidates before Aug. 31. The NEA still had $1.5 million in the bank on that date, according to the reports the group filed with the Federal Election Commission.

At the state level, the union is a bit more bipartisan. Its Montana and Utah affiliates are backing incumbent GOP governors, and the Ohio Education Association has been one of the most active bipartisan state organizations, putting its money and effort behind six Republicans seeking re-election to the state Senate.

Eventually, the NEA hopes this year’s results will show that it can deliver votes against lawmakers who make grabs at teacher pension plans, back school funding cuts, and support vouchers for private schools.

“Our goal is to elevate the issue of education beyond the partisanship of the [last] Congress,” Ms. Teasley said.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 16, 1996 edition of Education Week as Teachers’ Unions Flex Political Muscles as Election Nears


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