Politics & Policy

Teachers’ Unions Plan to Become ‘More Political, Not Less Political’

American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten speaks at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pa., in 2016. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
The recent Supreme Court decision has not led to moderation.

In a landmark First Amendment decision, the Supreme Court ruled earlier this summer in Janus v. AFSCME that states cannot require public employees to pay “agency fees” to unions. Prior to the decision, in 22 states, public employees who chose not to join a union could still be required to pay these fees — somewhat less than full dues — for union services. Some have suggested that unions might temper their left-wing politics in response to the decision, in the hopes of wooing potential members put off by union politics.

For unions, the stakes could hardly be higher. Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, warns that surveys show “many [teachers] see dues as too high” and “political activity as too leftist”; she also notes that “only half of all teachers voted for Hillary Clinton.” Internal documents from the National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s largest teachers’ union, anticipate that the union will lose a whopping 300,000 members. Things look even bleaker for the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the nation’s other major teachers’ union, which has 15 of its 22 largest state affiliates in former agency-fee states — and already had fewer than half its members paying full dues.

By happenstance, both unions held their big national conventions in July, providing a chance to scour the tea leaves for subtle hints as to how the unions might woo reluctant members, especially the hefty share who take issue with the leftist bent that has characterized the unions in recent decades. Even before the shock of Janus, unions worked in concert with Senate and House Republicans in 2015 to pass the Every Student Succeeds Act in a push to roll back many of the federal educational excesses of the Bush and Obama years, so a shift in approach seemed entirely possible.

It turns out that the tea leaves weren’t that hard to read, after all. At the NEA’s annual convention and representative assembly in Minneapolis, things kicked off on day one with Parkland survivor and woke gun-control activist David Hogg joining NEA president Lily Eskelsen García on stage to exhort the cheering throng, “There’s nothing more powerful in America than a pissed-off teacher.” The NEA also made time to award its Human and Civil Rights Award — given to those who have “demonstrated remarkable courage and conviction to stand up for racial and social justice” — to recipients including First Lady Michelle Obama and former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

Let educators, would-be members, and public officials be forewarned.

The NEA adopted 122 total New Business Items, including commitments to promote the Black Lives Matter Week of Action (including supporting BLM’s demand that “ethnic studies be taught in pre-K-12 schools”), to support “a strategy postponing confirmation of a Supreme Court justice until after the mid-term election,” and to encourage teachers to assign readings that “describe and deconstruct the systemic proliferation of a White supremacy culture and its constituent elements of White privilege and institutional racism.” The NEA also promised to respond “in support of and in solidarity with immigrant families who are separated, incarcerated, or refused their legal right to request asylum due to the heartless, racist, and discriminatory zero-tolerance policies of the Trump administration.”

In a move that promises to open a nasty new front in the culture wars, the NEA further pledged to

post a list of known individuals with businesses who are committed to refusing services to same-sex couples and/or LGBTQ individuals. NEA can access a list of these individuals and their businesses from organizations such as THINKPROGRESS (thinkprogress.org), Southern Poverty Law Center, and Human Rights Campaign, and share it with all state and local affiliates on nea.org.

At the AFT’s biennial convention in Pittsburgh, Hillary Clinton was awarded the union’s Women’s Rights Award, affording her a chance to share a few more thoughts on Donald Trump and why she lost the 2016 election. The convention’s other featured speakers spanned the diverse spectrum of the Democratic party’s far-left wing, ranging from militant progressive Elizabeth Warren to Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders.

Somehow, the AFT’s new policies leaned further left than the NEA’s. The AFT unanimously endorsed a “public investment strategy for health care and education infrastructure,” which includes: universal health care, “whether single-payer health care or MediCare for All”; free tuition at all public colleges and universities, as well as “funding for wage justice for adjuncts”; universal, full-day, free child care; doubled per-pupil spending for low-income K–12 districts; and “taxation of the rich to fully fund” a raft of education programs. AFT further resolved that they would “call on our endorsed candidates to support these priorities, and toward that end we will embed these aspirations in our questionnaires to potential candidates seeking our support.” Swing-state Democrats, beware.

For those who didn’t get quite get the message, AFT president Randi Weingarten told reporters, “We’re becoming more political, not less political.” Let educators, would-be members, and public officials be forewarned.

— Frederick M. Hess is the director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Grant Addison is the education program manager at AEI.

NOW WATCH: ‘Janus v. AFSCME: What’s Next for Teacher’s Unions?’

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