Let’s not mince words.
The last Presidential election was a cluster.
And we were at least partially to blame for it.
The Democratic primary process was a mess, the media gave free airtime to the most regressive candidate, and our national teachers unions – the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) – endorsed a Democratic challenger too early and without getting membership support first.
This time we have a chance to get it right.
Edu-blogger Peter Greene spoke my feelings when he took to Twitter:
“Just so we’re clear, and so we don’t screw it up again—- NEA and AFT, please wait at least a couple more weeks before endorsing a Democratic Presidential candidate for 2020.”
He’s being snarky.
No one would endorse two years before people actually enter a voting booth.
But fairness. Evenhandedness. Moderation.
Let’s be honest. That didn’t happen in 2015.
So let’s take a brief trip down memory lane and review our history for just a moment in order to prevent these same mistakes.
The NEA represents 3 million educators. It is the largest labor union in the country. However only about 180 people made the decision to back Hillary Clinton last time around.
In October of 2015, the NEA Board of Directors voted 118 to 39 in favor of the endorsement with 8 abstentions and 5 absences.
The 74 member PAC Council voted to endorse Clinton with 82% in favor, 18% against and some of the largest delegations – California and New Jersey – abstaining.
Check my math here. So 61 PAC votes plus 118 Directors plus one President Lily Eskelsen Garcia equals 180 in favor.
That’s about .00006% of the membership.
We may call it such, but that is not an endorsement.
We need more than just the leadership to support a candidate. We need that to translate to actual votes.
When you circumvent membership, you see the result – Donald Trump.
To be fair, some NEA directors may have polled state union leaders. But according to NEA by-laws, the organization need go no further to obtain input from individual members for a primary endorsement. Even these straw polls are a formality.
The 8,000 strong Representative Assembly (RA) did not get a say. This larger body representing state and local affiliates did get to vote on an endorsement in the general election when the field was narrowed down to only two major candidates.
But anything like a poll of individual members was apparently not desired by leadership – now or later.
We can’t do that again.
The process at the AFT was likewise perplexing.
The AFT endorsed Clinton in July of 2015 – a half year before the primaries and more than a year before the general election.
1) The AFT executive board invited all of the candidates to meet with them and submit to an interview. No Republican candidates responded.
2) Democrats including Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley and Clinton were interviewed in private.
3) The executive committee voted to endorse Clinton.
4) THEN the interviews were released to the public.
How can the AFT claim its endorsement was a result of membership opinion when the organization didn’t even release the interviews to members until AFTER the endorsement?
Ostensibly, the executive council used these interviews to help make its decision. Shouldn’t that same information have been available to rank and file members of the union before an endorsement was made?
Which brings up another question: were AFT members asked AT ALL about who to endorse before the executive council made the final decision?
According to the AFT press release, they were:
“The AFT has conducted a long, deliberative process to assess which candidate would best champion the issues of importance to our members, their families and communities. Members have been engaged online, through the “You Decide” website, through several telephone town halls, and through multiple surveys—reaching more than 1 million members.
Additionally, over the past few weeks, the AFT has conducted a scientific poll of our membership on the candidates and key issues. The top issues members raised were jobs and the economy and public education. Seventy-nine percent of our members who vote in Democratic primaries said we should endorse a candidate. And by more than a 3-to-1 margin, these members said the AFT should endorse Clinton.”
So the AFT claims union members said to endorse Clinton on-line, on telephone town halls, surveys and a scientific poll of membership.
But did they really?
I’m not a member of the AFT but I know many teachers who are. Very few of them have ever been surveyed.
The press release says AFT members preferred Clinton 3-1. Yet to my knowledge they never released the raw data of any polls or surveys of membership.
This can’t happen again.
AFT President Randi Weingarten said something similar during an interview Friday on C-SPAN.
She said the executive council passed a four step process just last week to ensure members were behind whoever the union eventually endorsed this time around:
“Our Executive Council just passed a process last week which has four components. Number One is what do the members want? What are their aspirations? What are their needs in terms of Presidential candidates? And so we will be doing a lot of listening and engaging with members.
Number Two – There’s a lot of candidates that want access to our membership. What we would like them to spend a day with our members. We would like them to see the challenges in classrooms. The challenges that nurses have. [The AFT also represents nurses.] Listen to the challenges of adjunct professors who have student loan debt that is well beyond what salaries they get per month.
Number Three – People are really active these days. So we don’t want them to wait until there is a nationwide endorsement to involve or get engaged with candidates. So there’s going to be an ability to be involved or engaged as delegates to do these kinds of things.
Number Four – At one point or another we’ll get to an endorsement.”
Frankly, this seems kind of vague to me. I hope this new process gets better results than the last one.
We need to be able to trust our unions.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my union. I bleed collective bargaining and labor rights.
I teach in Homestead, Pennsylvania, just a few miles away from the site of the famous steel strike.
I want a union that represents me and my colleagues.
We must do better this time around.
We need a candidate that has broad popular support of members, not just leadership. Broad popular support will lead to engaged members at the polls and that engagement will translate into actual votes for our endorsed candidate.
So NEA and AFT leaders, your members want to know:
What is your process for selecting our next U.S. presidential candidate?
What questions will you ask potential candidates?
How will members have a democratic voice in the process?
Please be transparent and publish your process to share with members through multiple sources.
And my union brothers and sisters, get involved. Engage in the endorsement process now! Call on our NEA and AFT leadership to invite early and widespread, as well as transparent, involvement in the endorsement process.
Do you know your NEA Board Members?
NEA Leadership Contact INFO here:
AFT Contact Info:
Let’s get it right this time.
Everything is riding on it.
Our vote is our future.
Special Thanks to Susan DuFresne for inspiring this article.
Still can’t get enough Gadfly? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!