When the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) announced its endorsement of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton on July 11, social media and news commentary lit up with the anger of those who saw the early nod as a shot in the arm to a candidate whose positions are less aligned with labor than those of her nearest competitor, Bernie Sanders, the United States senator from Vermont. Sanders, who defines himself as a socialist, has been moving up in the polls and drawing large and enthusiastic crowds at campaign events.
But others saw it as a smart, politically savvy move on the part of AFT President Randi Weingarten, a longtime Clinton ally. The early endorsement is the first by a national union in the 2016 presidential race. Weingarten sits on the board of the pro-Clinton super PAC Priorities USA Action.
“This is not a step the AFT has taken lightly, but the 2016 presidential election is already underway,” reads a statement on the AFT website. “There are important issues facing this country, and the debate on those issues is taking shape. In order to best affect the debate, the AFT and our members must engage now.”
PSC President Barbara Bowen is one of three among the 45-member AFT Executive Council who voted against the Clinton endorsement.
“I voted and spoke against the resolution because I felt that an early endorsement of Clinton would help to foreclose debate and progressive critique within the Democratic Party; it would further the sense that the nomination of Clinton is inevitable,” Bowen told Clarion. “At just the moment when a socialist candidate within the Democratic Party is mounting a serious challenge to the failure of Democrats to offer an alternative to austerity politics and endless war, an AFT endorsement of Clinton would be read as an attempt to make sure the challenge does not succeed.”
Many other AFT Executive Council members, however, spoke strongly in favor of an early Clinton endorsement, especially those from battleground states, where leaders felt it was crucial to start building support as early as possible for a Democratic candidate and policies that would defend public education and services.
An Early Endorsement
In an interview given to The New York Times the day the endorsement was announced, Weingarten noted that during Clinton’s tenure in the US Senate, the presidential hopeful earned a 100 percent rating from AFT. Weingarten also told the Times that members were telling her that Clinton would “make the country a fairer place for working people.” The AFT endorsement resolution cites Clinton’s longtime support for public education and health care.
Bowen stated her concern that a Clinton endorsement at this stage could be counter to the direct interests of AFT members. In a statement posted on the website of the California Federation of Teachers (CFT), Executive Council member and CFT President Joshua Pechthalt, who voted with Bowen against the endorsement, concurred.
“[T]he progressive movement would best be served by delaying an endorsement for as long as possible,” he wrote, because it would allow the Sanders message to shape the Democratic campaign.
“Bernie Sanders and growing Left populist movements could push Clinton to the left on such fundamental issues as education policy and higher ed funding,” Bowen said. “An endorsement sends the message that she does not have to move in a more progressive direction.”
“The resolution itself is something I cannot support,” Bowen continued. “It says that Hillary Clinton ‘shares our values.’ While Clinton clearly shares certain values with our members, a candidate who voted for the war in Iraq and then explained her vote as ‘a mistake’ is not one whose values are fully shared by them.”
Despite news reports of a request to union affiliates from AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka to refrain from making endorsements until the AFL had vetted candidates at its own Executive Council meeting later in July, Weingarten and the AFT Executive Council forged ahead with the endorsement vote, citing a poll of AFT members conducted in June, which Weingarten said showed overwhelming support for the former secretary of state in the 2016 presidential primary contest. But that polling was likely conducted at least a month after the AFT informed the AFL-CIO of its intention to make an endorsement. AFL-CIO rules for endorsements by affiliate unions require the affiliate to serve 60 days’ notice of the intention to endorse. According to a July 16 Politico report, AFT followed that protocol.
On the AFT’s Facebook page, members made their displeasure known. “This endorsement is an outrageous attempt by Clinton cronies in the AFT to derail Bernie Sanders before the primaries,” wrote Carolyn Boutte of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Steve Schmitz of San Diego, California, summed it up this way: “Rescind this endorsement, unless your goal was to unite your troops against both your leadership and Clinton.”
Weingarten took to Twitter to defend the endorsement. “By more than 3-1 margin, our members who vote in D primaries told us to endorse @HillaryClinton.”
In his CFT statement, Pechthalt sounded a note of caution to those threatening either to leave the union or to withhold their political contribution in protest.
“While I understand the frustration felt by members about endorsements, I disagree that withholding one’s political contribution or quitting the union is an effective way to change the union’s politics,” Pechthalt wrote.
He also noted the irony of how a revolt from the left feeds the agenda of the right, which is fighting on all fronts – including in an upcoming Supreme Court case – to deprive public-sector unions of resources.
But Pechthalt and Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and chair of the AFL-CIO’s Political Committee, noted that AFT’s process followed the union’s and the AFL-CIO’s democratic process. AFT rules allow a membership vote at the union’s annual convention to determine the union’s endorsement of a presidential candidate in the general election, but primary season endorsements are left to the AFT Executive Council. This year’s AFT primary endorsement, however, comes uncharacteristically early. In the 2008 cycle (the last time Democrats had a contested primary), the union held off making a primary endorsement until October 2007.
Vague on TPP
When Clinton appeared before the AFL-CIO Political Committee a mere two weeks after winning the AFT endorsement, she remained vague about her position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal championed by President Barack Obama, which the AFL-CIO opposes. Also appearing before the committee, Bernie Sanders and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, another Democratic presidential contender, made clear their opposition to the deal.
If the AFL-CIO Executive Council puts forward an endorsement for the Democratic nomination – and AFL-CIO Richard Trumka has hinted that it may not – it is not expected to come until late in the primary process.