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Analysis: UTLA attempts to move American Federation of Teachers to the left

Mike Antonucci | July 17, 2018

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Last week we highlighted how the California Teachers Association and its largest local affiliate, United Teachers Los Angeles, wield a disproportionate amount of power over the policies of their parent union, the National Education Association.

UTLA is also affiliated with the smaller of the two national teacher unions, the American Federation of Teachers. AFT just concluded it four-day convention in Pittsburgh.

AFT and NEA are structured differently, due to the geographic areas they represent. NEA is much larger and present in all 50 states, therefore it is internally organized around its state affiliates.

AFT is made up of large urban locals in New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Cleveland, and elsewhere. These locals act as independent fiefdoms for the most part. In turn, AFT national headquarters is not particularly beholden to them.

AFT’s formula for representation at the national convention is byzantine, but the results let you know clearly who holds the reins. Chicago sent 144 delegates. UTLA sent 22. The United Federation of Teachers in New York City sent 732.

With no hope of overriding the wishes of New York individually, other locals must team up to move their agenda. The prime example this year concerned AFT’s political endorsements.

As was also the case within NEA, there was a significant faction within AFT that was unhappy with the union’s early and full-throated endorsement of Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination in 2016. Many preferred Bernie Sanders or at least thought to use the endorsement process to angle for concessions from the Clinton campaign.

With this in mind, last weekend delegates from the Chicago Teachers Union, UTLA, and the Professional Staff Congress, which represents faculty at the City University of New York, joined forces to submit a resolution that directed AFT to support the following demands nationally:

1. Single-payer healthcare/Medicare for All;
2. Free college for all;
3. Universal/full-day and cost-free child care;
4. Double the per-pupil expenditures for low-income K-12 districts; and
5. Tax the rich to fully fund the IDEA and Title I.

AFT’s convention rules dictate that resolutions must first clear the relevant committee before reaching the floor for a vote. In committee, the resolution was amended and altered, but this version made it to the floor and passed with a unanimous vote:

Resolved, that the American Federation of Teachers will support a public investment strategy for health care and education infrastructure that includes the following aspirations:

1. Universal health care, whether single-payer health care or MediCare for All;

2. Free tuition at all public colleges and universities, starting with a focus on addressing student debt for all who are now being crushed by it;

3. Universal, full-day, and cost-free child care;

4. Doubled per-pupil expenditures for low-income K-12 districts;

5. Full public funding of public colleges and universities, including funding for wage justice for adjuncts; and

6. Taxation of the rich to fully fund IDEA, Title I and state allocations to public colleges and universities; and

Resolved, that we 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.

The amendments either strengthened or weakened the original language, depending on one’s point of view. The second “resolved” added a specific action to be taken that the original lacked. But some thought the designation of the list as “aspirations” undermined the desired effect.

It is difficult to predict the practical effect of the resolution. Taken literally, it would appreciably narrow the list of potential candidates to endorse. Those who wished to receive the AFT endorsement would have to move leftward, regardless of the state they want to represent.

At the same time, however, the delegates who submitted the resolution have no effective way of ensuring its intent is carried out. Signing on to a list of aspirations is hardly a commitment to seeing each of these demands written into law.

What it does tell us is that UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl and his colleagues have much more than the next collective bargaining agreement in mind. They have a vision for public policy that would affect all aspects of life in California, not just K-12 education.

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