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Teachers union irks rank and file with Clinton endorsement

By   /   July 14, 2015  /   News  /   No Comments

By Evan Grossman | Watchdog.org

Hillary Clinton won the endorsement of one of the largest teachers unions in the country, and many of its members want to know how in the world that happened.

AP file photo

BAD TEACHER: Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, was blasted this week after the AFT prematurely endorsed Hillary Clinton in next year’s presidential election.

The American Federation of Teachers rankled its own rank and file by backing Clinton, a candidate who may not represent the best interests of public school teachers, so far ahead of the Democratic primary. Irate educators also blasted AFT President Randi Weingarten for polling only a small percentage of the union’s vast membership before giving Clinton its endorsement.

“Hillary Clinton, a product of public schools herself, believes in the promise of public education,” Weingarten said in a statement announcing the decision. “She’s ready to work with us to confront the issues facing children and their families today, including poverty, wage stagnation, income inequality and lack of opportunity. Hillary is the leader we need to help us reclaim the promise of public education and, indeed, of America.”

The AFT is a fundraising heavyweight that spent almost $20 million on political campaigns in the 2014 election cycle. The union plans to make more than 1 million phone calls and knock on 500,000 doors in the run-up to the 2016 election. But not all of its members are eager to campaign for Clinton, who the union also endorsed when she ran against Barack Obama in 2008.

The AFT’s Facebook page was deluged with more than 2,300 posts from ticked-off members, some demanding their dues be returned because they did not agree with the union’s endorsement. Twitter also lit up with annoyed teachers weighing in on the decision to back Clinton, who has spoken favorably about charter schools, Common Core standards and high-stakes testing policies, all of which most unionized teachers do not support.

In addition to Clinton’s education policies, some union members feel like they were left out of the selection process. According to the union, only 1,500 teachers out of the AFT’s 1.6 million members were asked about which candidate the union should back.

The Clinton endorsement came from the AFT’s executive board, based on polling data collected from the union’s membership earlier this year and from private interviews conducted with Democratic candidates.

The union published the results of that polling data on its website, but it doesn’t show very much. According to the document, the decision to back Hillary was based primarily on electability and name recognition, and there isn’t any specific information about Clinton’s positions on education policies.

The candidate interviews were not published prior to the endorsement.

“This is a perplexing timetable,” according to teacher and blogger Steven Singer. “Why would the AFT endorse BEFORE releasing the interviews? 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?”

According to its own polling data, “Overall, 60 percent of AFT members either self-identify as Democrats or self-identify as independent and say they will vote in the Democratic primaries.” However, that leaves out 40 percent — or 640,000 members — from the process.

More than 3,000 people have signed a Change.org online petition calling for the AFT to withdraw its endorsement.

Some have speculated that Weingarten’s own political aspirations may have contributed to the early Clinton endorsement. The union head is a friend of Clinton’s and is on the board of the Priorities USA super PAC, which is working to get Clinton elected. The AFT endorsement could make Weingarten a candidate for secretary of education in a Clinton cabinet.

A rally will be held in Washington, D.C., this week against AFT leadership organized by supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is seen as Clinton’s most serious competition for the Democratic nomination next year.

“Many AFT members are outraged by the top-down and premature endorsement for Clinton by leaders of their union,” Rand Wilson, a spokesman for Labor for Bernie, told Watchdog. “This is why the labor movement needs strong rank-and-file networks with active members to hold our leaders accountable.”

Wilson said other unions may be more cautious now about backing candidates after the mess the AFT created for itself this week.

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Evan is a Pennsylvania-based education reporter for Watchdog.org. An Emmy Award-winning documentary writer, his work has also appeared on RollingStone.com, MensJournal.com, in the pages of the New York Post, and other outlets. His investigative work covering the School District of Philadelphia for Watchdog has been picked up by FOX News, NBC10 Philadelphia, Philadelphia Magazine, PhillyVoice.com and BillyPenn.com, and his series chronicling "ghost teachers" in Philadelphia led to the introduction of a law that would outlaw the practice of pulling teachers from the classroom to work full-time for the local teachers union. Follow him on Twitter @EGwatchdog or email Evan at egrossman@watchdog.org with tips.