Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The AFT Leadership’s Anti-democratic (and Anti-Democratic) Power Play

Hillary Clinton and loyal minion Randi Weingarten.
Curmie’s intention in terms of catching up on his writing was to alternate between education-related and other topics (mostly but not exclusively politics) for a while, at least until the backlog was brought more or less under control. So, having written last about FIFA and the Women’s World Cup, I should talk about education again. Well, I am… but it’s politics, too, so think of this as a transition piece into the next education essay.

So, what’s it about? The American Federation of Teachers has come out with a very early endorsement of Hillary Clinton for President. Oh, so coincidentally, this happened as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who actually is a friend of labor, has begun to surge both in the polls and in campaign contributions (despite the fact that he won’t accept money from Superpacs). And AFT President Randi Weingarten is accurately described by the Washington Post’s Lyndsey Layton as a “longtime Clinton ally.” Funny how these things work out, isn’t it?

There’s a lengthy rationale on the union’s website—including, by the way, grammatical errors in the both the third and fourth sentences—all about “vision, experience, and leadership.” Not much about education policy, though, largely because Hillary Clinton is one of only two major Democratic politicians I can think of who’s worse on education policy than Barack Obama is (the other is Andrew Cuomo, in case you were wondering). She’s a fan of charter schools, Teach for America, and high-stakes testing (her silence is deafening on whether test scores should factor into evaluating teachers). Whether these are the best policies for America is a matter of opinion: Curmie thinks they’re awful, but you, Gentle Reader, are free to disagree. Whether such a platform is endorsed by a majority of union members, however, is not opinion. It purports to be a factual statement, and it is, quite simply, a lie.

Ah, but the union leadership “conducted a phone survey calling more than 1 million members, commissioned a second major scientific poll from a nationally respected polling firm, and solicited your [i.e., the membership’s] input online and in person.” And the membership allegedly voted overwhelmingly (more than 3:1) to endorse HRC.

There are a little over a million and a half members of the AFT, so roughly 2/3 of them were allegedly called. Plus, of course, there was the solicitation of online input. Curiously, however, actual AFT members not only weren’t contacted, themselves, they also don’t know of anyone who was. And no one saw any announcement of an online solicitation. Funny thing about that.

It didn’t take long after the endorsement announcement for the fecal matter to interface the whirling rotors. The very next day, for example, Candi Peterson, the General Vice President of the Washington Teachers Union (WTU) wrote a blog piece with the headline “Teachers Say No Freaking Way to AFT Endorsement of Hillary Clinton.” Peterson cites a host of tweets from… you know… actual teachers. Here’s a sampling:
”...AFT Link says they used telephone town halls and a web-based survey, I didn't even know existed.”
“I know many AFT members too and have not heard one person polled either.”
“B.S. … how many of the over 1 million members responded?”
“guessing you did not poll your members! No to Clinton who promotes Teach for America and charters!”
“Clinton endorsement is a joke; local union voices are being silenced to retain AFT union funding.”
“sad day when political expediency trumps legitimate representation of members’ real priorities.”
You know, Curmie can be kind of dumb sometimes, but that sure sounds like those folks aren’t pleased. Peterson also observes that:
Given no one could locate AFT’s poll of members, the Badass Teachers Association (BAT) took matters into their own hands by conducting a poll on Face Book. So far 1240 teachers endorsed Bernie Sanders and only 84 endorsed Clinton. One teacher said “Weingarten has this thing about giving false information via polls... It’s scary.”
As it happens, Curmie is a BAT, and therefore can check the current numbers: as I write this, that Facebook poll is Sanders 1361, Clinton 94. (Sorry, you’ll have to trust me on those numbers, as the site is “members only.”) In percentage terms, that’s a 94-6% advantage for the guy the AFT leadership would have us believe could garner only 17% of the votes from AFT members. Yeah, I’m calling “BULLSHIT” on that one. Sure, although there’s no doubt some overlap between AFT members and BATs, they’re not exactly the same people. And outraged Sanders supporters are more likely to vote in that poll than relatively speaking complacent Clintonites. But those factors don’t come close to explaining the discrepancy. And whereas this isn’t a scientific poll, it is at least an honest one: you can’t get to the poll without being a member of the group, and you can vote only once. It’s easy to come to the conclusion that Weingarten cooked the books.

A day after Peterson’s essay came one on the “In These Times” blog, entitled, “The AFT’s Endorsement of Hillary Clinton Is an Insult to Union Democracy” (the essay also appears on the Jacobin magazine site under the title “What Is Wrong with the AFT,” with the blog piece’s title as a subtitle). The author, Lois Weiner, a professor of education at New Jersey City University, writes that “The decision couldn’t be more wrongheaded,” that the endorsement “has disempowered members at precisely the moment when we most need revitalized teachers unions to save a system of education that is being destroyed as a public good by powerful elites and the politicians they control,” and that “[the] process of seeking member opinion was an embarrassingly transparent cover for Weingarten’s longstanding desire that Clinton be the AFT’s candidate.” In other words, Weingarten cooked the books.

Another day later, over at Slate, Laura Moser found only one possible explanation for the endorsement and its timing:
The obvious answer is that the Clinton camp choreographed the AFT endorsement as a safeguard against the unexpected threat posed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders—a candidate, incidentally, that unions seem to like so much that earlier this month [AFL-CIO President Richard] Trumka had to remind state and local leaders that they weren’t allowed to endorse Sanders without his say-so.
Translation: Weingarten cooked the books.

Maureen Sullivan takes a different approach in an article in Forbes (not, the last time I checked, a liberal bastion):
In the three months since she announced her run for the White House, Clinton has avoided going on the record about the nitty-gritty of school issues. No doubt she’s keenly aware that supporting the teachers union in their fight against charter schools means ticking off black and Hispanic families who swear by them. And many deep-pockets at Democrat party fund-raisers also favor vouchers in the form of “opportunity scholarships.” Also, how does she explain away school choice for her child but not for the Democratic voters she needs in the primaries?
…. Clinton did not go on to say [in a stump speech in Iowa] what she thought of the new standardized assessments such as PARCC and Smarter Balanced that stretch for weeks at schools across the country. Nor did she mention whether she thought students’ test scores should be used to evaluate teachers or play a role in determining their compensation.
In other words, Clinton has ducked every major education issue, and won’t, in fact, work for what she believes is right if she might lose votes by doing so. And why should she, if she has friends like Weingarten who are almost as corrupt as she is, and who will grant her an endorsement she doesn’t come close to deserving, without having to deal with real teachers, real students, or real parents? Weingarten cooked the books.

There’s a problem with the above analysis, however. It’s not that the Clinton campaign or Randi Weingarten are too honest to manufacture evidence: that’s not remotely true. But the folks at Hart Research are, unlike their clients, unwilling to condone an outright fraud. And they produce numbers that support the AFT leadership’s outlandish claim that members actually prefer Clinton over Sanders. How could that be? (Note: it tells us something about the AFT and something about the GOP that no Republicans were on the list of choices, and only prospective Democratic primary voters were polled. But that’s a screed for another day.) Well, just because their numbers are accurate doesn’t mean their methodology is either honest or competent.

One argument that has been noised around some (on comments pages if nowhere else) is that a very high percentage of AFT members are women, and they responded to the poll as women first and educators second. Another interesting point is that the candidates’ responses to questionnaires weren’t distributed by the AFT’s Politburo until after the endorsement. That would be when at least some of them realized that their interests align far more with “the Bern” than with HRC. Plus, the questionnaire was loaded with queries about issues that have nothing to do with education, plus stuff about “electability.” Of course, those Gentle Readers with good memories may remember that oft-repeated refrain from the 2008 campaign, and if I recall correctly the “Obama can’t win” rhetoric was proved to be less than entirely accurate, as opposed to the “electable” John Kerry four years earlier.

In other words, the selection of voters, the questions asked, and especially the timing all favored Clinton (Hart knew who their client was and what they wanted for results, after all), leading Curmie to suspect that getting the poll taken before even the reasonably sophisticated membership of the AFT had a chance to look at the candidates may have been the real reason for the absurdly early endorsement. Hillary has name recognition, has been the presumptive nominee since Obama’s re-election (as she was in ’08, I hasten to note), and has been (disingenuously) presented as a friend of public education and educators.

Curmie’s kindred spirit in curmudgitude, Peter Greene, gets to the heart of the skepticism felt by any real educator at any level towards the Clinton candidacy in a piece called “How AFT Blew It”:
My opposition to Clinton (and support for Bernie Sanders) is not based on any belief that she is a terrible human being, a crazy-awful person, or some evil mastermind bitch on wheels. My reluctance to support her is not even based on my perception that she is extraordinarily inauthentic (though I think that magnifies her other issues). I just don’t think she is remotely a supporter of public education or the teachers who work there. I think she would be perfectly comfortable continuing the exact same policies that we’ve suffered under for the past fifteen years and in fact would prefer to continue with them….
I believe some folks have grossly over-estimated Clinton’s electability, under-estimated Sander’s electability, and hugely under-estimated how much Clinton really doesn’t support public education and the people who work there. I suppose time will tell.

But in the meantime, I’m really, really hoping that NEA [of which Peter is a member] will take a more careful approach to an endorsement. I hope we don’t send the Dems the message that we will always be there for them, no matter how badly they treat us. I hope we don’t cut the membership out of the process and just expect them to fall in line. And I hope we endorse somebody who isn’t going to, once again, stab us in the back, front, and side.
The AFT’s early endorsement of Hillary Clinton, then, should be applauded by no educator, no union supporter, and no Democrat. At best, it is a mismanaged political stunt for a candidate unworthy of support by an organization of public school educators. At worst, it is a cynical power play by a dishonest and Machiavellian union leader to pour resources into the campaign of a candidate who already has more than enough money flowing in from Wall Street and similar cronies. Either way, it has embarrassed the AFT in front of its members and the world, and it has diminished the authority of actual educators both inside and outside the organization. And that, Gentle Reader, is not a good thing.

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