The American Federation of Teachers’ Endorsement of Joe Biden Was Blatantly Undemocratic

The American Federation of Teachers recently announced its endorsement of Joe Biden for president. Even by the dismal standards set by the rest of the labor movement, the AFT’s endorsement was comically undemocratic.

Democratic presidential candidate, former vice president Joe Biden speaks during a campaign stop at the Water's Edge Nature Center on December 2, 2019 in Algona, Iowa. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

The American of Federation of Teachers (AFT) is by no means alone among labor unions in endorsing Biden as the Democratic Party’s nominee for president. Nor is the AFT’s endorsement, an action taken by its Executive Council, unique in its failure to adopt a system of one member, one vote, as did unions like the National Union of Health Workers, encouraging members to vote online, after extensive debate.

Yet the AFT’s endorsement is arguably singular because its violation of members’ rights combines with self-destructive political miscalculation, a combination that will harm public education and teachers.

Endorsing an Enemy of Public Education

The first danger comes from AFT backing a candidate its activist members do not trust. Teachers nationally have donated to Sanders more than they have any other candidate. The AFT leadership has pushed a candidate in the primary that representative bodies of its second and third largest locals, Chicago, with 26,000 members, and Los Angeles, representing 33,500 people, voted not to support in primaries. Los Angeles voted to endorse Bernie Sanders, Chicago both Sanders and Warren. More recently in New York, delegates representing 30,000 faculty and staff in the Professional Staff Congress of City University of New York voted to endorse Sanders in New York State’s primary.

AFT has pinned its hopes on Biden, no friend of public education as it becomes increasingly apparent the Right will use the coronavirus pandemic to intensify its effort to destroy public education, perhaps most ominously by linking funding to individual students pushing vouchers, its most potent weapon to defund school districts.

Moody’s has noted the most financially vulnerable school districts have already been hit hard by charter schools. Vouchers combined with reduced state funding to education, already shaping up as a battle in this unprecedented financial crisis, could destroy school districts and allow them to be replaced by networks of charter schools — the Right’s dream come true, a policy with disastrous effects already seen in New Orleans.

What we can expect from Biden is clear from his and the Obama wing of the Democratic Party’s embrace of the Right’s education agenda. Collaborating with billionaires who fund both parties, the Democrats devised ingenious new ways for corporations and banks to profit at the expense of schools, children, and teachers, damaging low-income communities of color most.

Perhaps most revealing about why teachers and their unions cannot expect Biden to save our schools is the broader political and economic frame the party adopted: the argument that education can solve poverty . And few outside the Right deny the educational reforms have failed to improve schools. Nor has the focus on education as the “one true path out of poverty” created jobs or ameliorated inequality.

Sanders, in contrast, has articulated the need for drastically altered policies to end poverty, restoring public oversight over capitalism, wrenching power from the wealthy elites who control government. Sanders’s education policies embed education in the massive shift of power and priorities this country needs, changes Biden’s entire political career has shown he rejects.

Still, it should come as no surprise AFT and the National Education Association (NEA), the country’s two largest educators’ unions, are supporting Biden — because they have often been complicit partners in bipartisan educational policy, endorsing use of standardized testing to reshape curriculum and evaluate teachers with “merit pay.” They have winked at “vulture philanthropy” reshaping schools and touted as a victory federal legislation that includes funding for “social impact bonds,” which allow banks to sell bonds to reduce the numbers of students who receive needed services.

Rank-and-file educators, in locals and state AFT and NEA affiliates, and in the Red state walkouts organizing independent of the unions, have demanded change. Along with parent and community allies, they have forced the AFT and NEA to change their stances on key issues. But the coronavirus epidemic has intensified the peril in reforms that has been under the activists’ radar. Both unions have endorsed online “personalized learning” which is being advanced by both parties, investment banks, and Silicon Valley. School districts adopting online teaching as a substitute for face-to-face schooling are ripe “markets” for these programs now, which mine students’ data, tracking them for life through the entire social service system.

A Flawed Process

It would be a mistake to confuse the union’s presidential endorsement for the membership’s desires, which have yet to be determined. The AFT’s Executive Council, not its 1.7 million members, made the endorsement — as was the case in 2016, when Hillary Clinton received the AFT Executive Committee’s approval fifteen months prior to the presidential election. This time the AFT Executive Council affirmed its choice of Biden based on a poll conducted by Hart Research Associates, whose president Geoffrey Garin was co-strategist for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. The polling agency made the resolute claim that there is “Remarkably broad support for Biden within the union,” despite having polled only 1,207 members — or 0.07 percent of the entire AFT membership.

The poll’s tiny sample size heightens concerns about how the survey was conducted and whose opinions it represents. It’s unclear how those polled were chosen to be interviewed, how they were identified as “Democratic Party voters” (which was the poll’s scope of interviewees), and the specific wording of questions interviewees were asked, always a key factor in surveys.

Neither the union nor the polling firm released information about several variables that could influence results, such as the type of phone used (cell or landline), geographic location, or years in service. Were interviewees all working educators? What percentage were union staff or officials, whose livelihoods can depend on their agreeability with the politics of the union leadership?

In short, the poll’s reliability to inform a decision of such importance is at best questionable, especially given the union’s history of making decisions about endorsements that claim to be representative but are unpersuasive to many activists.

Close scrutiny of the poll’s findings should raise an alarm about the breadth of membership support for Biden. The majority of members polled think positively of both candidates Biden and Sanders, with Biden at an advantage by only 9 percentage points. Although Biden as the party nominee enjoys an edge in every demographic reported as polled, this edge is remarkable for its unevenness. Among retirees Biden’s advantage is largest, with 75 percent for Biden and 16 percent for Sanders. This contrasts significantly with results among health care (50 percent vs. 42 percent), Hispanic (48 percent vs 44 percent), and higher-ed (49 percent vs 46 percent) members. Among those who identified as independent the Biden advantage is +13, but among “Democrats” is +32. Considering that a plurality of American voters is independent, it’s not only possible but likely the margin of AFT members’ support for Biden over Sanders as the party nominee is smaller than the poll suggests.

That said, Biden clearly enjoyed an edge among those interviewed. A plurality of interviewees reported that “their priority is nominating the most electable candidate (rather than the candidate with the ‘best positions’).” Rather than the candidate’s actual policies, then, almost half based their preference primarily on “electability.”

The poll also shows that, among active members, the Biden edge jumped from +19 to +31 after the March 17 primaries, when Biden doubled his delegate lead. This suggests that undecided and uncommitted members may have been persuaded by arguments about electability pushed by Sanders’s opponents in the Democratic Party, and later reflected in electoral results. What if earlier in the year, the AFT had motivated more rank-and-file engagement — more debate and discussion, not merely orchestrated phone-in question-and-answer town halls ?

No one can say what would have occurred had the union provided space for debate, but the reasons provided for supporting Biden at least suggest there was a window earlier in the electoral season when support of AFT members might have swung to a different candidate, as occurred in the Chicago and Los Angeles locals. What is certain is that the AFT chose to substitute faux-consultation for democratic decision-making, encouraged by informed debate among members.

A strategy of suppressing internal discussion and a membership vote on whom to endorse was clear in the largest AFT local, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). In December 2019 the union’s Delegate Assembly voted down a resolution that would have created forums for members to debate the candidates, followed by a “one-member, one-vote” citywide endorsement decision. While the Chicago and LA locals made their endorsements, the UFT leadership insisted on postponing the UFT’s endorsement.

Though not articulated as a reason, the UFT, the heart of the AFT national machine, holds dear its relationship to powerful figures in the Democratic Party. Current UFT president Michael Mulgrew argued a UFT endorsement would impact members of other locals, who would then feel disengaged for seeing that the UFT’s choice made the AFT’s endorsement a foregone conclusion. For his part, Mulgrew had no qualms about the effects of his own endorsement of Biden: the UFT president is currently Biden’s DNC delegate, while AFT president Randi Weingarten publicly endorsed Senator Elizabeth Warren in what she called a personal capacity.

In the end, postponement of the UFT vote to March translated to its cancellation. The AFT Executive Council’s endorsement of Biden will accomplish precisely what Mulgrew argued a democratic UFT endorsement process would do: foreclose authentic participation by members. Biden’s endorsement will now likely be rubber stamped by the AFT Convention, as many locals view debate and votes on whom to endorse irrelevant given the national union’s position.

AFT’s endorsement followed the announcement by the National Education Association (NEA) that it had endorsed Biden. NEA’s contentious process is described by a neoliberal pundit whose reports on AFT and NEA internal matters are generally reliable; as the report shows, though the NEA operates differently from the AFT, it is no more democratic and no less committed to maintaining officers’ personal access to Democratic politicians and power. The Right knows this weakness of organized labor and intends to exploit it, as it did in pushing for the Janus decision, which ended public employee unions’ legal right to collect fees from members on whose behalf it negotiates and enforces contracts.

Union Democracy Matters

In 2016, one-third of NEA and one-quarter of AFT members voted for Trump, a fact ignored in union publications and in the decision to endorse Biden. We have paid dearly for the way AFT and NEA made the decision to endorse Clinton, as well as her being labor’s candidate.

What the NEA’s and AFT’s endorsement this time around reveals is that neither union has learned from the 2016 debacle. Union democracy counts, in ways that put public education and democracy itself at risk if we ignore them. It will be up to the rank-and-file movement that has made teachers’ unions a key force in reviving labor to teach the AFT and NEA national leadership — or replace it.