Teaching Profession

Teachers Want More of a Say in Their Unions’ Political Endorsements

By Madeline Will — July 16, 2018 3 min read
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Pittsburgh, Penn.

Disappointed with union leadership’s decision to endorse Hillary Clinton over Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary election, delegates at the American Federation of Teachers’ convention took steps to make sure their voices will be heard in the 2020 race.

This weekend, AFT delegates unanimously passed a resolution that called on any candidates endorsed by the AFT to support priorities defined by the members—including universal health care, free tuition at public colleges and university, free child care, and more school funding for low-income school districts. The resolution says AFT should give questionnaires to potential candidates seeking an endorsement that gauge their support on these issues.

“I was deeply disappointed when our national AFT leadership preemptively endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016,” said delegate Jessica Buchsbaum during the floor debate. “Many of us passionately supported Bernie. He gets it right on every issue, and he doesn’t belong to corporate America. ... This resolution will say we endorse on the issues.”

The AFT—and the other major national teachers’ union, the National Education Association—endorsed Clinton early on in the last Democratic presidential primary race, much to the chagrin of many members who viewed Sanders as the more union-friendly candidate. An AFT endorsement requires the approval of its executive council, which is composed of the union’s leadership and its 40-plus vice presidents. The council considered interviews with the primary candidates, as well as polls of the union’s members. AFT President Randi Weingarten and Clinton have longstanding, deep ties.

“I hope that our AFT leadership will get it right going forward and listen to state and local leaders and rank-and-file members on endorsement decisions,” Buchsbaum said.

Sanders, who is rumored to be considering another bid at the presidency, and Clinton both spoke at the AFT convention this weekend, along with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, another rumored presidential contender.

The AFT resolution “provides the vehicle to hold our elected officials not only responsible ... but accountable for their actions once they take office,” said delegate Anabel Ibanez, the political director for the United Educators of San Francisco, during the floor debate. “We will not endorse them if they don’t pledge to uphold our values.”

Those values also include “taxation of the rich” to fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Title I program, and state allocations to public colleges and universities, as well as “free tuition at all public colleges and universities, starting with a focus on addressing student debt for all who are now being crushed with it,” according to the resolution. Candidates backed by AFT should support “doubled per-pupil expenditures for low-income K-12 districts” and child care that’s universal, full-day, and cost-free, the resolution says.

(It’s worth noting that Sanders shares many of those values, particularly tuition-free college education. Clinton later incorporated similar values into her platform, including a proposal to eliminate tuition at in-state public colleges for families making under a certain amount.)

Meanwhile, at the NEA convention earlier this month, delegates failed to pass a similar measure—a constitutional amendment that would have established the representative assembly, which is the body of the rank-and-file, as the only union entity to recommend or endorse presidential candidates for both the primary and general election. The amendment required a two-thirds majority to pass.

Currently, the 170-member NEA board of directors endorses a candidate. After answering questions from board members for over an hour, Clinton got the support of 75 percent of the board in 2015. That decision also upset many of the NEA’s rank-and-file members.

The teachers’ unions’ endorsements are important for primary candidates: Both unions have significant political war chests and thousands of teachers who could be willing to knock on doors and canvass for the selected candidate.

Image by Elliott Cramer/AFT. Courtesy of the American Federation of Teachers, all rights reserved.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.