Union Report: In the Byzantine World of American Federation of Teachers Membership, Numbers Just Don’t Add Up

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten (Robin Marchant/Getty Images)

Mike Antonucci’s Union Report appears Wednesdays; see the full archive

A few weeks ago, I wrote a column comparing National Education Association membership numbers from 2009 to 2018. It was pretty straightforward, since I have accumulated NEA’s internal accounting of those statistics dating back to about 1994. But it raised the inevitable question: What about the American Federation of Teachers?

AFT has been very vocal about its membership growth. “The reality is the AFT has added 100,000 members from February 2018 to February 2019, and we’ve tallied 14 organizing wins since June,” wrote Randi Weingarten, president of AFT, in March. “We are close to 1.7 million members again and have added a quarter of a million members in the last decade.”

Those are pretty specific numbers and should be relatively easy to check. But they’re not. Putting together a definitive statistic requires navigating a sea of differing job titles, member categories and affiliations. So this won’t be neat, but I doubt you’ll find anything better outside AFT headquarters.

Here is a table I put together, though I’m afraid it requires a great deal of explanation.

2009 18AFTcomparisons (Text)

I divided every state where AFT has identifiable members into three categories: merged NEA/AFT affiliates, state federations that report their membership on a U.S. Department of Labor disclosure report, called an LM-2, and those that do not. The last category has estimated full-time equivalent membership numbers based on the number of delegates to the AFT Convention they were allocated in 2018. It’s a rough estimate, but better than guessing.

To begin, AFT’s membership consists of a wide range of jobs, much more diversified than that of NEA. There are a lot of nurses and health professionals, a lot of higher education faculty, a lot of public employees and even a local made up of lifeguards.

It’s impossible for an outsider to separate them out, so as long as they are working, I counted them.

There are many nonworking members. The union counts nearly 400,000 retirees among its total that I don’t include here. AFT also has associate members, who are those who belong to AFT but have no local, or who wish to remain members after losing or leaving their job. AFT also added a Friends of the AFT category in 2016. Similar to NEA’s newly enacted community ally category, it allows virtually anyone to join. I couldn’t distinguish associate members from Friends of the AFT, so I counted them all as working members.

With that in mind, you can see that AFT reported 889,347 working members in 2008-09 and 1,283,993 working members in 2017-18. That’s an extraordinary increase during a period when NEA lost 260,000 members. But is it real?

Well, there’s a problem. The 2008-09 number is an undercount, as it didn’t include “merged local and state members.” That was corrected by 2013, and by 2017-18 they accounted for an additional 165,116 members. These weren’t new members, just members who had not been correctly accounted for previously.

The aforementioned associate members accounted for some real growth. They went from about 27,000 to more than 51,000 during that nine-year period.

Nevertheless, if we add up all the working AFT members in all states where the union has a presence, the total is supposed to add up to 1,283,993. I come up more than 150,000 short, even after making every allowance.

I can account for only 70,098 new working members between 2009 and 2018, including the affiliate added in Puerto Rico, where members pay only minimal dues. I don’t know how to get from that to Weingarten’s claimed “quarter of a million in the last decade.”

It bears mentioning that AFT’s Texas affiliate doesn’t take its membership numbers seriously, consistently reporting 5,000-member increments year after year. The union claims to have gained 10,000 members between 2009 and 2018, but one of its largest locals, the Houston Federation of Teachers, reported a loss of 600 members (10 percent) during the same period.

There are other curiosities concerning the growth in AFT membership. The national union reported that it had only 724,109 full-time members in 2018. That’s 10,000 fewer full-timers than it had in 2009. New York State United Teachers, constituting almost 40 percent of AFT’s total membership, added fewer than 22,000 new members. I count 14 of 27 AFT state federations that lost members between 2009 and 2018.

Where did all these reported new members come from? Perhaps I’m ignorant of the logical explanation for the discrepancies. It’s possible. But it looks to me like AFT national is reporting one set of numbers and its state federations another.

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