AFT Convention Seemed More Transparent Than NEA’s. But Looks Can Be Deceiving

There is no doubt AFT is focused on investing in public schools. The problem is that it wasn’t so heavily focused on reopening schools in 2020 or 2021

Mayor Michelle Wu spoke at the annual American Federation of Teachers Convention at the BCEC in South Boston on July 13. (City of Boston Mayor’s Office/Flickr)

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The American Federation of Teachers held its biennial convention in Boston last week. Unlike the NEA Representative Assembly, delegates met entirely in person and the union was more than happy to post its proposed resolutions and other documents online.

More transparency doesn’t necessarily mean more honesty, though. A lot of what the AFT Convention produces requires elaboration, footnotes, context and filling in the gaps.

NEA and AFT share much the same philosophy about public education and policy. This shouldn’t be surprising, since they share many members. Every NEA member in New York, Florida, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, Los Angeles, Austin, Wichita, et al., also belongs to AFT, and vice versa. AFT President Randi Weingarten, coming from New York, is an NEA member.

With all these members in common, how is it the NEA lost tens of thousands over the past two years, while AFT reported it gained 1,000?

This requires some understanding of the composition of AFT’s membership. While NEA requires retirees to apply for membership and pay $30 annually (plus whatever fee their state affiliate charges retirees), AFT automatically converts active members into retired status and charges them nothing.

The end result is that once you join AFT, you’re a member for life unless you resign. Thus, the stability in total membership is entirely due to the growth in the number of retirees. In 2018, they made up 23.5 percent of AFT’s total membership. The addition of almost 50,000 more retirees brought it up to 26.2 percent by 2021.

AFT also has a large number of nurses, health care workers, university faculty and civil service employees. These constitute only a small fraction of NEA’s membership.

Membership accounting isn’t the only way the two national teachers unions diverge. Perhaps the biggest difference is that NEA has term limits for its executive officers — two three-year terms. AFT does not. AFT has had only four presidents since 1974. If you’re an AFT member for life, it’s also true that Randi Weingarten is AFT president for life.

Placing action items on the agenda of the NEA Representative Assembly requires the signatures of just 50 individual delegates. This leads to a lot of fringe items that don’t have much chance of passing but often lead to long debates.

Getting proposed resolutions to the floor of the AFT Convention is much more daunting. They can be submitted only by local or state affiliates, not individuals. Then they must pass the scrutiny of an AFT committee, which can amend the resolution. It then sends it to the floor with a recommendation — concur, not concur or refer to the union’s executive council. If there is more than one resolution on a single topic, the committee can also declare that one precludes another, or merge the two.

The result is that virtually everything reaching the floor has already been vetted and set up for approval by the full delegation. Floor debate ensues, but it is generally pro forma.

Voting is another area where AFT diverges from NEA. Each NEA delegate has a single vote. The number of delegates present for each vote has the potential to swing the outcome one way or the other.

AFT delegates vote the weight of their union local, regardless of how many delegates are present. This is based on the number of full-time equivalent members each local has. For example, two part-time workers each paying half-dues is equivalent to one full-time member. The delegates from New York City’s United Federation of Teachers wielded 126,327 votes this year, which was 16.6 percent of all votes. UFT and the delegates from the rest of New York state held a full one-third of the total vote. It stands to reason that resolutions passed by the convention delegates tend to reflect a New York state of mind.

The approved resolutions won’t surprise you. They call for increasing the number of community schools, reducing reliance on standardized tests, canceling student debt, opposing school vouchers and a host of other things the union is already doing.

More interesting are the changes the committees made or actions they recommended for other resolutions.

For example, one resolution called on the union to urge teacher pension funds to divest from fossil fuels, but it also wanted AFT to divest its own assets in fossil fuels by July 1, 2025. This was altered in committee to have a union task force “identify means by which AFT may divest” and removed the deadline.

A committee recommended a resolution titled “Lowering the Voice of Money in Politics” be referred to the AFT Executive Council.

A committee did not concur with a resolution to oppose the privatization of Medicare, for reasons I can only assume are related to the UFT’s involvement in moving retired New York City teachers into Medicare Advantage plans.

None of the resolutions garnered much press coverage, being overshadowed by the results of a battleground state poll AFT commissioned from Hart Research Associates. The main takeaway was that likely voters trusted Republicans slightly more on education issues than they did Democrats. Democrats traditionally have held a large advantage on education.

A memo accompanying the poll recommends that Democrats should “make clear that Republicans are politicizing education — pushing a political agenda that diverts public schools from their core mission of educating children — while Democrats want schools to focus on fundamentals to help students succeed.”

That’s fine as a campaign strategy, but when asked “who is more responsible for politicizing education,” 33% of respondents blamed Democrats and liberals, 28% blamed Republicans and conservatives, and 36% blamed both equally.

Respondents were asked about their confidence levels in various groups “to have the right ideas for public schools.” Public school teachers came out on top of the choices provided, with 62% of those surveyed saying they had a great deal or fair amount of confidence. Teachers unions, however, mustered the support of only 44%.

Weingarten took the poll memo to heart.

“While extremist politicians are trying to drive a wedge between parents and teachers by banning books, censoring curriculum and politicizing public education, we’re focused on investing in public schools and the essential knowledge and skills students need,” she said in her keynote speech.

There is no doubt the union is focused on investing in public schools. The problem is that it wasn’t so heavily focused on reopening schools in 2020 or 2021, which might account for the seismic shift in trust the Hart poll highlighted.

The assemblies of both national teachers unions are now complete, and it is clear that neither has done much soul-searching about its stances during the pandemic. Critical race theory and “Don’t Say Gay” may grab attention as dividing lines in the public education culture wars, but learning loss and plummeting enrollment are not the results of anyone’s political strategy. They are the predictable consequences of prolonged school closures, for which the unions bear a great deal of responsibility.

Pretending otherwise is a larger threat to teacher union influence over education policy than anything Republicans might concoct.

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