Analysis: Delegates to AFT’s Virtual Convention Have a Very Long Wish List. That Doesn’t Mean the Democrats, If They Win, Will Go Along
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Recently, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) held its biennial convention online due to the current circumstances. Unlike the National Education Association (NEA), which had to limit its agenda, AFT managed to maintain its usual proceedings.
AFT, being the smaller of the two national teachers unions, has a different structure compared to NEA. They do not enforce term limits, and their current president, Randi Weingarten, is only the fourth person to hold this position in the past 46 years. It is likely that she will continue in this role for as long as she desires. Additionally, while an NEA delegate can bring any topic to the floor for debate with the support of 50 other delegates, an AFT resolution must first gain approval from a policy committee.
Another distinction lies in the voting system for union officers. NEA follows a one delegate, one vote system, whereas AFT delegate votes are weighted according to the size of their local affiliate. For instance, the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, with 123,219 votes, holds significant influence. If only one UFT delegate returns their mail-in ballot, it will count as 123,219 votes.
Although AFT has local affiliates in most states, it is primarily dominated by New York. About 34 percent of delegate votes come from New York locals. It’s worth noting that among AFT’s ten largest local affiliates, only four primarily consist of K-12 teachers. The remaining six are comprised of government workers, college faculty, school support staff, and nurses.
During the convention, in addition to the customary speeches and awards, AFT delegates followed NEA’s lead by overwhelmingly endorsing Joe Biden’s presidential candidacy. However, they differed in their decision to freeze dues levels for 2020. Dues will increase by 40 cents per member per month in 2021, with the additional funds directly contributing to the union’s Militancy/Defense fund, which supports strikes.
AFT made headlines recently when its executive council approved a resolution on school reopenings. The resolution emphasized prioritizing safety and health, with a provision stating that local or state affiliate safety strikes could be supported on a case-by-case basis as a last resort. Unfortunately, this was often misinterpreted as AFT endorsing or permitting strikes without considering the context. The resolution clearly specifies that such support is subject to evaluation on a case-by-case basis, reflecting AFT’s long-standing policy on strike support, regardless of the reason for the walkout.
The decision to call strikes ultimately rests with local affiliates, as seen in the ongoing situation in Detroit. It would be unusual for AFT not to support a teacher strike, although financial contributions depend on the specific circumstances, hence the need for the "case-by-case" caveat. As of December 31, 2019, the union’s Militancy/Defense fund had less than $4 million in total assets.
While AFT delegates addressed several COVID-19-related resolutions, they also expanded their agenda to include a broad range of bold and progressive resolutions. Some of the key resolutions encompassed the right to collectively bargain and have strong unions, affordable and safe housing, broadband as an essential public utility, a fair tax system that ensures wealthy individuals and corporations pay their fair share (AFT’s national headquarters received $179 million tax-free last year), universal child care, paid leave, increased Social Security benefits, cancellation of all student debt, free high-quality public higher education, removal of police officers from schools, and universal health insurance coverage with either a single-payer system or a public insurance option.
The most noteworthy reactions have come from the final two resolutions. AFT’s stance on health care coverage has faced criticism from the left for not fully endorsing Medicare for All. On the other hand, the left has celebrated AFT’s endorsement of the Green New Deal. Frederick Hess and RJ Martin of the conservative American Enterprise Institute have highlighted that AFT’s proposals go beyond the Democratic Party’s current positions.
The reason behind this is quite straightforward: The majority of AFT delegates represent members from the Northeast and densely populated urban areas. On the other hand, NEA’s membership is spread evenly across all 50 states without any particular region dominating. This disparity means that NEA has to be mindful of how its policy positions are received in places like Iowa and North Carolina.
If Biden is victorious and the Democrats gain control of the Senate, it is likely that we will witness progress towards achieving many of the AFT’s desires. However, it is important to note that Biden is not Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Therefore, the AFT may have to be patient and wait until 2024 or even beyond for their dreams to be realized. Additionally, the events of 2020 have shown us that unexpected occurrences can occur and potentially hamper the implementation of plans.