I have received emails from a number of members critical of the AFT’s endorsement of Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party nomination for President. At the AFT Executive Council meeting, I, along with another Vice President who represents higher education, spoke and voted in opposition to the endorsement. The endorsement, which was overwhelming, came after interviews with Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, two national phone-in town hall meetings, an online survey, and a poll of more than 1,000 AFT members from across the country. All declared candidates were invited, but these three were the only ones who agreed to be interviewed.
As I said at the AFT Executive Council, the progressive movement would best be served by delaying an endorsement for as long as possible. Bernie Sanders’ campaign and message have served to pull the Democratic Party in a more progressive direction. He has raised important issues of economic inequality and provided, along with Elizabeth Warren, a sharp critique of Wall Street and the banks.
He has also advocated for free higher public education and has spelled out the most progressive populist message we have heard from a mainstream candidate in a long time. His position as an independent socialist has been a breath of fresh air and he is gaining traction on issues that resonate with the American people.
Other Council members agreed with Sanders’ overall message. However, a number of Council members said an early endorsement was warranted based on Clinton’s strong showing in our internal polling. Also, many Council members felt an early endorsement put the AFT in a stronger position to promote our education agenda with the candidate many believe has the best chance to be the next president of the country. Finally, AFT leaders in battleground states like Florida, Ohio, Michigan and others said an early endorsement gave them time to build support for Clinton while a Sanders campaign would not be viable.
In addition to the CFT members who have communicated with me, I have heard from other AFT leaders who have received similar messages from their members. Some members have expressed misgivings that Clinton is not progressive enough and that she has a history of being a hawk on foreign policy issues. I share many of those concerns and of course members, like me, can choose to vote for Bernie Sanders.
Regardless of the disagreement on the endorsement, the process the AFT followed was democratic. The AFT Executive Council, like the executive bodies of almost every other union, has the authority to endorse for the primaries and it did so. However, the delegates at the 2016 convention will decide which candidate to endorse for President for the general election.
Some members have suggested that they plan to withhold their political action contribution to the union; in essence, quit the union. Of course members are free to do that. Those who ask for their political contribution to be withheld become agency fee or fair share payers. We represent them but they are not entitled to membership status, including being able to vote on contracts, internal union elections and shaping the policies of the union. They give up the right to affect the direction of the union, including whom the local, state and national unions endorse.
Ironically, this is the same position we are currently fighting in a number of related lawsuits where a small group of teachers backed by Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher (corporate America and the one-percent’s go-to law firm) are challenging us because of our support for Proposition 30, Tom Torlakson for State Superintendent and other issues.
While I understand the frustration felt by members about endorsements, I disagree that withholding one’s political contribution or quitting the union is an effective way to change the union’s politics.
As a long time dissident in my own local, there were times I disagreed with the union’s position on political issues. I disagreed with the union’s opposition to bilingual education, our union’s failure to oppose military involvement in Central America and other issues that were, and are, important to me.
But I, along with other like-minded union activists, worked to change fellow members’ views. It took work, but over time we were successful. Our local became an advocate for bilingual education, rather than an opponent, and there were many other positions the union took that came about because members organized.
If it is important to get your union, or any union, to support your views, then it requires work and commitment to make that happen. If members simply decide to withhold their political contributions and become agency fee payers, then activists abandon one of the most powerful organizations for change, our union, to others.
It is important to remember that because of the political contribution of our members and the political support of the AFT, the CFT and our locals have been able to advocate for political issues that have had a profound, positive impact on California. The CFT led the way and helped pass Proposition 25, the Majority Budget Act, which gives the state legislature the ability to adopt budgets with a majority vote.
Our leadership on the Millionaires Tax shaped Prop 30, one of the most progressive tax reforms in our history and a measure that has brought billions of additional dollars into our schools. Again, because of the political contributions of our members, we are now part of two coalitions working on progressive revenue measures that could bring billions of additional dollars to our schools and needed social services.
Political contributions are also key to supporting candidates and advocating for issues that influence the state’s education budget, class size, access to higher education, community college accreditation and the rights and working conditions for classified workers, adult school educators and adjunct faculty to name just a few.
But political endorsements and elections are only part of how we move politics in this country. While we must support candidates and then work to get them elected, we should never solely rely on elected leaders. Rather, there must be a balance between politics, policy and organizing, the three-legged stool of unionism. The CFT and national AFT understand that to build political power and change the direction of our country, we need to build the labor movement and deepen our connections with our communities. It is that kind of power that is built at the workplace and in the locals and then through active alliances with our community partners that gives us the political strength to move any candidate or politician in a more progressive direction.