The American Federation Of Teachers At The Crossroads

Workers Action

Allan Fisher
The 1.5 million member American Federation of Teachers (AFT) can be a powerful force in opposition to the corporate agenda that has gripped this nation. Tensions over the direction of AFT have been brewing and the 2010 National Convention reflected these philosophical and political divides. The 2010 convention featured a challenge to AFT’s traditional leadership from large locals in Chicago and Detroit, from the Peace and Justice Caucus and from youthful radicals connected to BAMN (By Any Means Necessary) which ran a slate of candidates in opposition to the prevailing “Progressive Caucus”.

These forces are demanding major changes in AFT’s politics and style. Their main criticism is that the national leadership is too willing to partner with the corporate elite allied to the Obama administration’s attempt to “reform” public education. The challengers seek a stronger, more aggressive approach against merit pay (tying teacher salaries to standardized test scores), the proliferation of charter schools, attacks on tenure and seniority rights, and the government’s “Race to the Top” program in which states compete for funding by adopting anti-union measures.

As usual, the national convention was dominated by the New York City’s Local 2 (UFT) which provided 750 of the 3206 total delegates who, I have been told, are pressured to toe the leadership’s line. The “Progressive” Caucus leadership, led by AFT President Randi Weingarten, (a former UFT president) controls the program on the floor and manipulates the committees from where resolutions are sent to the convention floor for debate and approval. The debate on the convention floor is also manipulated in accordance to the desires of the leadership. 

For example, when a resolution against the war in Afghanistan was brought up for consideration on the convention floor, an amendment was offered clarifying the reasons for U.S. involvement. The proposed amendment called into question the notion (stated in the resolution) that the war in Afghanistan began as a purely defensive war. The amendment proposed to insert “the war in Afghanistan is not a war of defense and not in the interests of working people” suggesting that the causes of the war include geo-political interests and control over the natural resources of the region. After Barbara Bowen (a dissident on the Progressive Caucus), spoke eloquently in favor of the amendment stating that “as educators it is important to level with the American people about the true reasons for the war”, AFT President Weingarten moved quickly to call on Leo Casey from UFT Local 2 (after just having received an award on behalf of a colleague in full view of the delegates) who brought up the familiar argument connecting Afghanistan to the 9/11 attacks and Al Queda. Quickly the question was called, the vote to end debate passed, and the vote on the amendment was defeated.

Nevertheless, the original resolution that was subsequently approved is a step forward since it opposes any further escalation of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan and calls for “an end to our open–ended military involvement in Afghanistan with a specific timetable for the rapid, orderly withdrawal of all armed forces and military contractors from Afghanistan”. (Although the AFT is on record as opposing the war in Iraq, war and military spending is not listed under issues on the AFT website and war issues are not discussed in AFT publications.)

The AFT leadership has always been extremely protective of perceived U.S. interests (similar to the corporate controlled media in our country). Following the usual pattern, resolutions condemning adversaries to U.S. corporate interests such as Cuba and Iran are promoted while resolutions critical of U.S. policies are discouraged. A resolution condemning U.S. support for the coup government of Honduras made it through the International Relations Committee, but was not prioritized to get debated on the convention floor and is not listed on the AFT website.

Bill Gates — Invited Speaker

Public education (including City Collage of San Francisco) and nonprofit organizations have become more and more dependent on corporate money, especially during the recent economic crisis. Instead of paying their fair share of taxes, billionaires like Bill Gates are attempting to destroy the power of the teachers’ unions and turn the public school system from a public trust into a new market for corporate development. Bill Gates has spent millions promoting charter schools (schools publicly funded by taxpayers, yet run privately, outside the control of local school boards) and has spearheaded the $4.35 billion government’s “Race to the Top “ program which promises aid to cash strapped states that eliminate caps on charter schools and agree to place even greater emphasis on standardized testing. As corporate money floods into the public schools, democratic control by the citizens is undermined. The corporate agenda includes more and more testing, getting rid of tenure and merit pay. The strategy is to divide parents, students and taxpayers from teachers creating a “blame the teacher” public perception. The corporate controlled media and its political allies argue that the system is broken, teachers are to blame, and that only market competition can fix the situation along with selling off pieces of the public sector to private corporations.

Thus, the AFT Peace and Justice Caucus, the BAMN group and allies objected to the invitation to Bill Gates to speak to the delegates in order to present his views on education, without a chance for comments or questions from the delegates. About 80 delegates walked out when Bill Gates began to address his captive audience moving just outside the doors of the convention hall where we held a loud demonstration against Bill Gates and his privatization agenda. Although we were only a small number of the total delegates, certainly we expressed the sentiments of a much larger number of the delegates politely listening inside the hall as well as delegates who had boycotted the whole proceedings. 

In spite of the difficulties and disappointments, I came away from the 2010 convention feeling that the potential exists to turn the AFT into a much stronger force to save public education and help build the movement for social justice and peace. The AFT, having reached 1.5 million members, makes up about 10% of the unionized workforce in the U.S. Some new progressive forces have emerged within the AFT, especially represented by the delegations from Detroit and Chicago (where a new progressive leadership has taken power) joining the BAMN folks, the Peace and Justice Caucus and other new leadership to forge a truly fighting and progressive national union.

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