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August 12, 2019 • 11:59 am

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Unions Endorse Clinton, But Rank and File Love Her Not Print
By Ben Boychuk
Thursday, October 29 2015
Let that sink in. Half of NEA members do not support Clinton’s candidacy.

Hillary Clinton remains the odds-on favorite to win the Democratic Party’s nomination for president next year. Sure, most voters dislike her personally and find her untrustworthy, but the “inevitable” candidate of 2008 looks to be seriously inevitable now that Vice President Joe Biden has opted out of the race and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders continues to trail her in the national polls.

And, after all, she has backing from powerful public-sector unions. Doesn’t she?

Last week, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the largest public-employee union in the nation, announced its support. Earlier this month, the National Education Association finally came out with its endorsement after several months of deliberation. The American Federation of Teachers had been quick to bless her candidacy in July.

High-powered union endorsements so early in the nominating season are rare. Most public-sector unions waited until after Barack Obama had secured the nomination in 2008 before backing him officially.

The bosses are happy to back Clinton. But NEA executives had to engage in a bit of chicanery to make the endorsement happen. Because the union technically is only lending its seal of approval to Clinton for the primaries, the board of directors avoided submitting the question to the 8,000-member Representative Assembly.

Rank-and-rile union members aren’t unified behind Clinton at all. For one, she supports policies many teachers and their unions disdain. She likes Common Core. She likes standardized tests. She favors using test scores to evaluate teachers’ performance, which drives the unions batty.

Yet the AFT jammed the endorsement down its members’ throats at the union’s summer convention. Progressives complained they had little input and questioned why the executive committee waited until after the endorsement was complete before releasing videos of its interviews with Clinton, Sanders and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley. Activists protested loudly following the announcement.

NEA members aren’t happy, either. “Even if she says things that today sound supportive, she’s not going to be a steadfast friend of organized labor,” Jamie Rinaldi, a Massachusetts teacher and union activist told Politico. “We don’t know she’s going to be the ally that’s going to stand with our legislative agenda.”

Vermont’s NEA affiliate endorsed native son Sanders in June, calling him “pro-family, pro-worker, pro-education and pro-labor” VTNEA president Martha Allen was peeved at the outcome, which she says changes nothing.

“Make no mistake: I am deeply disappointed in the national board’s decision,” Allen wrote in a special announcement to her members. Mike Antonucci of the Sacramento-based Education Intelligence Agency posted Allen’s message on his website. It included the statement of Donald Tinney, VTNEA’s representative on the national board of directors.

“It’s cynical to base our support on the metrics of ‘electability’ or, more repugnantly, on some sort of desire to have access or a seat at the table,” Tinney told his fellow board members. “Since when do we as unionists — who proclaim we now embrace an organizing model — stay content with a seat at the table? We’ve had our seats at the table, and that has brought us the likes of Arne Duncan.”

The NEA really doesn’t like Arne Duncan.

“I say we act like the nation’s largest union,” Tinney continued. “I say we harness the power of our membership, regardless of how scary it may seem. I say we let this process play out longer, that we listen to our fellow members more closely (a poll showing that more than half of our members don’t support Hillary should be a reason to pause), and that we learn from the debates.”

Let that sink in. Half of NEA members do not support Clinton’s candidacy. Not all teacher union members are Democrats, of course, even though the vast bulk of NEA’s political spending and in-kind support goes to Democratic Party candidates. But the divisions are telling.

Big Labor isn’t the powerhouse it used to be. By now the statistics detailing the decline of private-sector union membership versus the relative rise of public-sector union power should be well known. Union membership fell to 11.1 percent of all U.S. laborers in 2014, down from 20.1 percent in 1983. But while 6.6 percent of private sector workers belong to a union, 35.7 percent of government employees are unionized. More importantly, there are 1.5 million more government union members today than in 1983.

As a result, public sector unions are now the foot soldiers of the Democratic Party. The Democrats’ highly disciplined get-out-the-vote effort is made possible through the dedicated efforts of union volunteers. And none are more zealous than the teachers unions. The NEA usually has the largest contingent of delegates at the Democratic National Convention. (I once found myself stuck on a bus full of NEA members trying to leave the Los Angeles Staples Center during the 2000 convention. The police had locked everything down because of a riot on the northern side of the convention center. It was the longest ride of my life. The tear gas would have been preferable.)

Doubtless, the progressive factions of these unions will fall into line as the outcome of the nomination becomes apparent. Clinton may be a cynical politician and a creature of the despised One Percent, but when it comes down to a battle between the “fun” candidate and “the candidate of the Koch brothers,” the rank and file will choose the tribe over principle every time. But they won’t have joy in their hearts when they do.

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