Viewpoint: AFT's Refusal to Challenge Democratic Establishment Leaves Every Teacher Behind
The American Federation of Teachers had its work cut out for it at its 2020 convention in July. In the last two years, more than 400,000 teachers had hit the streets in strikes and protests, from North Carolina and New Jersey to Arizona and California, with a red-shirted panorama in between.
Teachers’ pent-up frustration had at long last exploded. Although teachers have the lowest wages among professionals, many were facing concession demands from school boards offering insulting wages. Teachers chafe under incessant mandatory student testing, unmanageable class sizes, and micromanagement. They are targets of the uber-rich and hedge-fund parasites bent on diverting billions in education dollars to corporate coffers.
The teacher strikes of 2018-2019 were the most significant labor upsurge in decades. You would have thought that building on these actions would consume the convention’s work.
That was not the case. Instead, the convention was mostly a three-day promotion for the election of Joe Biden, with the ubiquitous Democratic National Committee member and AFT President Randi Weingarten hosting.
Weingarten’s message was very clear, and very wrong: that working for Joe Biden and the Democratic Party is the best way to advance teachers’ interests.
TEACHERS AGREE, ALREADY
That President Trump needs to go is incontestable to just about everyone in labor and to most teachers. There’s no need to hammer away at that.
There is also little to gain, and much to lose, by ignoring the challenges that a status quo, pro-corporate Biden will create. This is particularly true for teachers, as Biden was the number two man in arguably the most anti-public-school administration in memory. The Obama-Biden administration promoted the proliferation of charter schools, which are mostly non-union and siphon money and resources from public schools. It also gave states grants for teacher merit pay, which teachers strongly oppose, and promoted the controversial Common Core uniform curriculum.
The Obama administration supported the Bush administration’s worst educational program, No Child Left Behind, which enshrined onerous standardized testing into K-12 schools. It then replaced it with a worse one, the Every Student Succeeds Act.
Incredibly, Weingarten called Biden “our go-to guy” in the Obama administration—as a selling point, not a cautionary note. All was forgotten, just as in 2012, when both national teacher unions enthusiastically endorsed Obama for reelection.
The convention exemplified labor’s knee-jerk habit of endorsing and handing over vast amounts of members’ money to the candidates of a political party that has done nothing of note for labor in 80 years. It also showed the extent to which U.S. unions emphasize electoral efforts as their main political work—giving organizing and mobilizing a back seat.
WHAT WE GOT THROUGH ORGANIZING
Yet it was organizing and mobilizing during 2018-2019 that created the most significant gains for teachers in decades.
Arizona teachers got 20 percent raises for their strike efforts and pushed a bill through the legislature, which had been stalled for years, providing $400 million extra for education. In Denver, a three-day strike won teachers an average $9,000-a-year raise. It also gave them momentum to elect a controlling faction to the Denver school board.
On the very first day of the West Virginia teachers strike, a major pro-privatization bill was defeated in the legislature. In Washington state, Tacoma teachers went on strike after being offered a paltry 3.1 percent raise. After a week in the streets, they settled on 14.5 percent. In Oklahoma, just the threat of a walkout got teachers raises averaging $6,000.
A few days of striking reaped better results than the dozens of years of pumping resources into a failed electoral strategy.
WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN
There’s more work to be done to consolidate these gains and mobilize teachers in other cities. That should have been the task of the convention.
Leaders of the strikes could have outlined their successful strategies and offered suggestions for improvement. Workshops could have been held to train teachers in organizing mass actions.
That didn’t happen. Instead of headlining the local heroes of the massive mobilizations, national Democratic honchos such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer were the featured speakers. The convention culminated with Weingarten’s fawning interview of Biden. There was not one speaker, workshop, or presentation about the historic strikes.
Weingarten’s opening address set the tone. She said nothing about how the AFT and its locals should address teachers’ challenges. She mentioned the wave of strikes and unrest in only one sentence, characterizing them as general activism.
All the resolutions passed were safe for Biden’s pro-corporate agenda. Medicare for All was the biggest victim.
The AFT had previously endorsed Medicare for All. Single-payer insurance has the support of most Americans and AFT members. The Affordable Care Act has left millions of people uncovered. More than 45,000 people die each year from lack of medical coverage, more than die from guns. The COVID-19 epidemic had, at the time of the convention, killed more than 100,000 Americans, including many AFT members.
But Joe Biden opposes Medicare for All. Accordingly, Weingarten and NEA President Lily Eskelsen García, as members of the Democrats’ Platform Committee, both voted against putting single-payer health care into the Democratic platform.
Weingarten and the AFT vice presidents then came to the AFT convention to steer the delegates in the same line. Language that would have favored a single-payer plan was watered down. Instead delegates adopted a resolution that gave a dubious “public option” even weight. The public option would leave the existing private health care system intact and add an optional government insurance program for those at the margins of the health care market. The convention completely ignored a resolution from the Boston and Los Angeles locals, “In Support of Single-Payer Healthcare.”
Health care was not the only issue where the convention pulled punches for the convenience of Biden and the Democratic Party’s conservative wing. There was no call for defunding the police, a key demand of the Black Lives Matter movement.
NO MORE STRIKES
Absent from discussion were resolutions to develop the massive mobilization of the past two years. This might have to do with the fact that many of the strikes and walkouts were wildcats, without the sanction of state and local unions.
Most of the organizing was done by rank and filers forming their own parallel strike organizations, outside the union structure (with the notable exception of Los Angeles and Oakland). In Arizona, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma, groups of the rank and file were formed as teachers became frustrated with their unions’ lack of action.
Some union officials even tried to put the brakes on mass mobilizations. The Guardian reported, “Teachers in Oklahoma and Kentucky say that they were inspired by the efforts of teachers in West Virginia, who continued illegal wildcat strikes despite calls from union leaders to return to work.” The president of the Oklahoma Education Association prematurely announced that teachers’ action “had achieved all it could with a walkout,” and that henceforth teachers should “shift their efforts to supporting candidates in the fall elections who favor increased education funding.”
The Massachusetts Teachers Association’s progressive president Merrie Najimy observed, “Let’s be clear: the organizing and resistance in public education is a rank-and-file movement… I understand only too well how elected leaders can get confused about their role. Union bureaucracy and access to politicians and policymakers conspire to convince us that our movement’s strength comes from the top down.”
That top-down strategy and attempt to channel mass mobilization into electoral efforts for the Democrats were in full force at the AFT convention. While Weingarten promoted an “activism plus elections” strategy, the only activism encouraged was to campaign for Joe Biden and the Democratic ticket in other races.
Teachers encourage students to think critically. But there was little critical thinking evident at this convention. In the understandable fear of another Trump term, Biden was lionized. Delegates were encouraged to blind themselves to Biden’s considerable baggage and the work that will be needed to advance teachers’ interests regardless of who is president. The AFT is hostage to the Democratic Party: in the last election, this election, and the next election, irrespective of the record and platform of its candidate.
Consequently, the AFT pulls punches. It sacrifices the resources that could be used to organize to instead campaign for a political party and self-interested politicians.
To build on our mass movements of 2018-2019, teachers need to replace union leaders who focus on electoral strategy over mobilizing and organizing. Alliances should be developed among the more militant locals, such as those in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Oakland. Teachers can forge such coalitions and build common strategies at Labor Notes conferences and give mutual support during each other’s mobilizations.
To buck moribund leadership, teachers should follow the lead of those in Kentucky and West Virginia, among others, and form caucuses within their locals. Those caucuses can organize actions, run candidates for union office, create rank-and-file-powered locals that have mass action as their top priority, and are not hesitant to strike.
Marc Wutschke belongs to United Teachers Los Angeles, Local 1021 of the AFT, and serves in its House of Representatives. He was a delegate to the 2020 AFT convention and teaches English and Social Studies at Abram Friedman Occupational Center in downtown Los Angeles.
Bradbury, Alexandra; Brenner, Mark; Brown, Jenny; Slaughter, Jane; Winslow, Samantha, How to Jump-Start Your Union: Lessons from the Chicago Teachers, Labor Notes, 2014.
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Himmelstein, David U.; Woolhandler, Steffie, “The ‘Public Option’ on Health Care Is a Poison Pill,” The Nation, October 7, 2019.
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