As you would expect, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten was none too pleased with Saturday’s Dropout Nation commentary on the role teachers should play in shaping education policy. Particularly annoyed with your editor’s point that the AFT is more-concerned with the perspectives of retired teachers who no longer work in classrooms (as well as soon-to-retire Baby Boomers in the working rank-and-file) than with younger teachers in the ranks. Declared Weingarten on Twitter: “retirees do not sway local elections”.
Yet data from the elections held in 2010 by the AFT’s flagship local in New York City, the United Federation of Teachers (which Weingarten ran before taking over the national presidency and is now led by her aspiring successor for the national presidency, Michael Mulgrew), tells a different story. This, in turn, belies AFT’s claim (and that of the National Education Association) that it listens to — and represents — all teachers.
Retired AFT affiliate members (many of whom are enjoying their sunset years far away from classrooms and the chilly Big Apple weather) accounted for two out of every five votes cast during that election. More than likely, retired members were the largest single demographic voting block within the affiliate. But those numbers belie the level of influence they had over the election. Some 25,000 retirees voted in the elections, almost as many participants as the 27,500 rank-and-file members still working in classrooms; only an affiliate rule restricting retirees to only 18,000 votes kept retirees from exercising their full strength. The fact that half of retired members voted in the elections versus a mere 24 percent of working rank-and-file members, also shows the strength of retirees; after all, teachers’ union bosses are no less astute about counting votes than their counterparts in political office.
Considering that many of the retired voters were also likely part of the Unity coalition that has controlled AFT local politics since the days of the legendary Albert Shanker (and is part of the larger Progressive faction that has run the national AFT for decades), they remain an influential force within the union. So important are retirees to the internal political fortunes of Mulgrew and his allies that the union proposed last January to lift the cap on retiree participation in elections from 18,000 to 25,300. [This, by the way, was not received kindly by dissidents within the union ranks.]
Why would retirees, who have already collected the full array of packages from traditional teacher compensation, would be so active in participating in a union election? One likely reason has to do with the fact that the union, from their perspective, is likely addressing their concerns. After all, over the past few years, Mulgrew has actively pushed against New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s efforts to use student test score growth data in teacher evaluations, overhaul how teachers are granted near-lifetime employment, and end quality-blind Last In-First Out layoff rules that often benefit longtime teachers regardless of their performance at the expense of younger counterparts. Even though these matters are no longer any of their concern, their participation in AFT elections is one way they can retain a voice in shaping how the AFT’s leverages its declining influence over education policy.
But what about the low level of participation among rank-and-file working teachers? Some would argue that this, in part, reflects the reality that for most longtime veterans in the classroom (and even for some younger counterparts), the value of union membership mostly has to do with the perceived ability to shape workplace conditions and pay through negotiations and strike actions (even though state laws governing teacher quality are a much bigger factor than collective bargaining). So long as the union continues to protect the seniority-based privileges from which they benefit, they are unlikely to pay mind to the union’s political influence activities. Yet the growing legion of groups representing younger, more reform-minded teachers such Educators 4 Excellence (which is working within AFT affiliates to push for a reform agenda) — along with the complaints from more-radical elements of the traditionalist ranks such as Norm Scott (a longtime critic of Weingarten and Mulgrew) and Movement of Rank-and-File Educators — offer a different reason for why voter participation is so low: Apathy and discontent, especially among younger teachers, over how the AFT local (and the national union itself) ignores their concerns.
As you would expect, more-radical traditionalists, most of which are Baby Boomers, are frustrated with Mulgrew’s willingness to occasionally give in to Bloomberg on some issues, and with Weingarten’s longstanding efforts to triangulate the school reform movement (which began during her tenure as head of the New York City local). Looking toward the union’s elections this coming April, they are backing challengers to Mulgrew who will embrace the more-pugnacious approach of Chicago affiliate boss Karen Lewis. At the same time, the traditionalists also have truly legitimate concerns about the lack of input they have in shaping the AFT affiliate’s direction. From where they sit, Mulgrew (and Weingarten) have not been any more willing to listen to them than the school reformers they mutually oppose. And this lack of democracy has been seen in Unity’s successful efforts to squelch rival, more-progressive factions within AFT politics at the Big Apple level, including New Action (now a de-facto affiliate of Unity), and Independent Coalition of Educators (which unsuccessfully challenged Mulgrew back in 2010), as well as Unity’s threats to anyone within its caucus who dares to disagree with its agenda.
For younger teachers, who now make up the majority of AFT affiliate members, their issues with Mulgrew are different, and yet similar to those of their more-radical traditionalist counterparts. They are frustrated with the AFT’s continued embrace of an obsolete industrial union-style model that values seniority over professionalism. Mulgrew’s continued opposition to Bloomberg’s overhaul of teacher performance management (including the implementation of New York State’s new teacher evaluation system) hinders their ability to gain the high-quality data and feedback they need in order to help all children achieve success. They also resent the AFT’s defense of seniority-based pay scales that do little to reward high-quality work (as well as allows laggard counterparts earn the same compensation that they do despite doing poorly in classrooms), and are dismayed that the union supports reverse-seniority layoff policies that are more-likely to cost them jobs (and years of future retirement savings) while protecting Baby Boomer counterparts regardless of the quality of their work.
For both sides, the AFT at both the local and national levels hardly represents an organization that “listens” to teachers. When one considers that most of the AFT’s finances go to lobbying, contributions to supposedly like-minded outfits, and other efforts to retain its influence (instead of toward organizing rank-and-file members, as more-radical traditionalists prefer, or elevating the profession, as demanded by younger, more reform-minded counterparts), as well as take note of financial mismanagement by AFT affiliates such as Broward County, it is hard to disagree. This is no inconsiderable thing. After all, unlike participation in Movement of Rank-and-File Educators or Educators 4 Excellence, AFT membership isn’t voluntary; even those teachers who don’t want to join the union are still forced to pay dues in the form of so-called agency fees). Simply put, it may be time for teachers of all philosophies to move away from the AFT (as well as the NEA) and embrace a different form of professional representation.