This should be a happy time for Rhonda (Randi) Weingarten. After all, the American Federation of Teachers boss is in sunny Los Angeles presiding over this year’s convention. She can also claim that it has increased membership by 50 percent (from 848,323 to 1.6 million between 2011-2012 and 2012-2013) even as the rival National Education Association’s ranks declined within that same period. There’s the fact that Dennis Van Roekel’s departure as NEA president makes Weingarten the most-senior leader within the traditionalist camp. And Weingarten can argue that she only has to build upon the AFT’s few successes while her new counterpart as NEA boss, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, is faced with cleaning up Van Roekel’s mess.
During the speech (which featured a talk show host-style walk-through and a less-than-sincere effort at folksiness with her “welcome home” to the crowd), Weingarten complained that reformers and cost-cutting governors have made “threats” to the lives and livelihoods of teachers and others within AFT membership. She intoned that the union would wage retribution against U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and other politicians for supporting last month’s California Superior Court decision in Vergara v. California decision. And in a typical bit of class warfare rhetoric, she bemoaned the “political power” of the wealthy (without, of course, daring to mention the $543,150 she collected in 2012-2013 or the AFT’s vast coffers).
Yet none of Randi’s disappointment should be surprising. This is because she and her fellow AFT bosses have plenty to worry about. These days, the union’s influence over education policymaking, as well as its financial fortunes, are in decline.
Weingarten is presiding over the AFT’s convention in the City of Angels just a month after a California judge handed down his ruling in Vergara v. California ending the near-lifetime employment laws upon which the AFT’s influence (and that of the NEA) is dependent. Especially for the AFT, the ruling makes it even harder for the union, which works in the big cities that are the most-fervent hotbeds for revamping traditional teacher compensation and implementing other reforms), to keep the grand bargain it has long struck with Baby Boomers and other teachers to keep their profession the most-comfortable (as well as best-paid) in the public sector. Particularly for Baby Boomers and hardcore progressives within the AFT’s rank-and-file, the ruling is a reminder of how weak the union has become, and that Weingarten’s unsuccessful efforts to triangulate school reformers has, in their minds, contributed to the problem.
There’s also the fact that the AFT, along with the NEA, were harshly reminded that it can no longer count on unquestioned Democratic Party support. Randi wasn’t likely surprised when outgoing House Education and the Workforce Committee Ranking Member George Miller, long a foe of traditionalists, sent out a letter to his colleagues praising Vergara. But Weingarten was livid when Duncan, the Obama Administration’s point man on education reform, mildly praised the Vergara decision as an opportunity to “build a new framework” for teacher employment that “protects students’ rights to equal educational opportunities”. Even worse for Weingarten and the AFT, Duncan didn’t take too kindly to her attempt to shame him into submission; he doubled down on his earlier remarks, arguing that the AFTs (and NEA’s) defense of traditional teacher compensation policies “undercut the public’s confidence in public education.”
The need to boost Democratic Party support — especially given that the AFT (save for its New York State affiliate) has never bothered to cultivate allies among Republicans — explains Weingarten’s announcement today that the union is backing the formation of a Democratic Party pressure group co-chaired by longtime party operative Donna Brazile (whose firm is a recipient of teachers’ union dollars) in order to counter centrist reformers who are now in control of the education policy discussion. Whether or not it will work is another story. After all, Hillary Clinton, who may end up winning the Democratic presidential nomination if she runs for it, helped her husband successfully push for the use of teacher certification tests during his tenure as Arkansas governor in the 1980s. Other likely candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, have also been strong reform backers.
Weingarten even learned that even some progressives aren’t on the AFT’s side. Sure, the union can still count on outfits to which it has financed such as Netroots Nation (the latter of which, along with its foundation arm, collected $43,400 from the union in 2012-2013). But the union took a blow last week when former Village Voice writer Wayne Barrett (who has also been a thorn in Weingarten’s side) took aim at the union, its Big Apple local, and even New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on the pages of the Daily News for “hijacking the very language of movement politics” in order to keep its influence from waning and its coffers filled. The piece (along with one written this week by former StudentsFirst executive Dmitri Melhorn in The Daily Beast) has once again reminded more-thoughtful progressives that supporting the AFT (as well as the NEA) doesn’t lead to better outcomes for the children and poor families they want to help.
So this weekend, Randi is attempting to use the convention to galvanize the AFT’s campaign to supposedly “Reclaim the Promise” of public education. But given the union’s longstanding support of policies and practices that have harmed kids, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds attending traditional district schools the union’s locals have long dominated, neither it nor Weingarten can claim to be working to reclaim a promise it never made.
Meanwhile the AFT is attempting to reclaim its financial condition. That’s also a problem.
As Dropout Nation noted back in November, the AFT generated revenue of $321 million in 2012-2013, a two percent decline over the previous year. The decline marks the second straight year of decline. Forced dues collections in the form of a per-capita tax on members at the local level was $144 million, a 17 percent decline over 2011-2012. But even those numbers don’t fully show the union’s fiscal condition. See, the AFT has developed a habit of borrowing massive sums to tide itself over. It borrowed $117 million through its line of credit with SunTrust Bank during 2012-2013, of which all but $2 million was repaid; this was similar to what happened in 2011-2012, when the AFT borrowed $88 million and repaid most of it back. Without the borrowing (which accounted for 36 percent of reported revenue), AFT generated $203 million in 2012-2013, a 15 percent decline over the $238 million generated (excluding debt borrowings) during the previous year.
These tough straits explain why the AFT is proposing a $12 hike in raises by 2014-2015, which will raise just $10 million in new dues, according to a Dropout Nation analysis. This includes kicking some money to a so-called Militancy/Defense Fund that can only be used to finance work stoppages the union deems allowable under its strike policy. So it will rarely be spent, giving the union a nice pool of cash on which to collect interest. Of course, cutting the 198 AFT staffers making more than $100,000 a year, as the NEA has done, is not an option. Yet.
As for the AFT’s membership growth? It isn’t what either Weingarten or her fellow bosses within the union want to claim it to be. Much of the union’s growth hasn’t come from the addition of teachers to the rank and file through its organizing effort, or from the growing ranks of early childhood teachers working in preschool programs. Instead, it has come from striking affiliation deals with unions outside of education such as the United Nations Staff Union and unions representing nurses in the healthcare field. As a result of this, the AFT is less able than ever to claim itself to be the voice of teachers working in the nation’s classrooms. It also means that the AFT is competing against the likes of the Service Employees International Union, a far more ruthless union which has spent most of the last two decades beating back other unions to gain large shares of workers in healthcare, early ed, and other fields.
There’s also the growth that has come from adding part-time rank-and-filers to its rolls: The percentage of one-eighth members increased by a ten-fold, from 3,453 members in 2011-2012 to 33,042 in 2012-2013, while the number of one-quarter members tripled, from 24,484 to 97,571 in that same period. The ranks of so-called associate members have also doubled, from 25,264 in 2011-2012 to 53,212 in 2012-2013. Much of this growth can certainly be attributed to the addition of members who work outside of elementary and secondary education.
As a result, the AFT isn’t adding more of the full-time rank-and-file members it needs to fill its coffers. Just 46 percent of the AFT’s 1.6 million members in 2012-2013 were full-time dues payers either working in classrooms or in other areas; they accounted for three-quarters of the union’s roster a year earlier. What about the rest? Twenty-one percent of AFT members are retirees no longer working in classrooms; the better for Weingarten and her allies within the Progressive coalition that controls the union (as well as runs locals such as the United Federation of Teachers in New York City) to keep it under their thumb. [By the way: The AFT’s decision to recognize the retirees is a big reason why the union’s membership doubled between 2011-2012 and 2012-2013.] Another 12 percent of members are half-members. That’s no so good: Like the quarter-members and others, they don’t pay enough into the union’s coffers to keep it afloat.
This isn’t shocking. The long-term costs of virtually-insolvent defined-benefit pensions that the AFT has defended (and through its affiliates, often control through board seats) is weighing heavily on districts and states. This, along with woes from the seven-year-long economic malaise, and the retirement of Baby Boomers, is resulting in fewer teachers (as well as other school employees) on the job. The successful efforts by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam to end collective bargaining and the ability of teachers’ unions to force instructors to pay into their coffers regardless of their desire to join their rosters has also been hurtful. The AFT’s Wisconsin affiliate was particularly hard hit, losing 63 percent of its members, and being forced into merging with the NEA’s Badger State affiliate in order to survive.
But for the AFT (as well as the NEA), the worse is likely yet to come. The U.S. Supreme Court has already signaled in its decision in Harris v. Quinn that it will probably reverse the precedent set in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education granting public-sector unions the privilege of forcing workers regardless of membership status to pay into its coffers. For the AFT, this may mean a 25 percent decline in membership leading to a $36 million hit to its revenue line. Considering the AFT’s not-so-great fiscal condition (including a $14 million deficit last year), such a loss would be devastating.
Even without a reversal of Abood, the AFT could lose money and clout if younger teachers, who now make up the majority of rank-and-file members, leave the union for professional membership associations that eschew the old-school union approach it embraces. Given their frustration with the AFT’s defense of seniority-based privileges such as last in-first out that impede their career progress, anger with the efforts of locals such as UFT to rig elections in ways that favor retirees over teachers still in classrooms, and dismay with the union’s unwillingness to embrace a professional development model that elevates the profession, they have little reason to stay in its fold. And when they begin noticing that the union’s growth in other sectors outside of education is coming at their expense (as some traditionalists already have) they will agitate for something better.
The only way the AFT can keep those teachers is by embracing the skilled tradesman model of the pre-Industrial Revolution era at the heart of the medical and legal professions. This includes providing professional development to in place of what is offered by districts, championing teachers to start their own schools and programs to address the education crisis, and launching alternative teacher training programs similar to those offered by Teach For America. But that requires the AFT to embrace systemic reform — and that won’t fly with the Karen Lewises and other hardcore unionists among Baby Boomers in the ranks who want the union to fight harder for traditional teacher compensation. The fact that Weingarten’s efforts on that front — including the biannual TEACH conferences and the Share My Lesson venture the AFT launched with British corporate firm TSL Education Ltd — have not been satisfactory to members show the inability (and the unwillingness) of the union to truly adapt to meet the needs of younger teachers.
With Weingarten being unable to revamp the AFT in ways that will actually lead it to live up to its motto of being a union of professionals, and incapable of accepting the reality that the policies it defends can no longer stand (and, in fact, are immoral and intellectually indefensible), there is little for her to celebrate. Randi may be better off playing a certain Rolling Stones song and reminiscing about her union’s good old days.
Updated to note the proposed dues hike.