AFT activists lean in to support 2020 candidates

As AFT leaders gathered at the February executive council meeting, it was clear: A year since we started the AFT’s endorsement process, with the largest, deepest engagement with AFT members and candidates ever, we needed to step into the next phase of the process—the advocacy piece. More than 300,000 members engaged personally in our 2020 election work during the first phase. We heard from nurses, teachers, school support staff, bus drivers, adjunct professors, graduate employees, public employees and more from all over the country, and learned about their aspirations and who they connect with and trust.

audience members AFT Votes

At the executive council meeting, we reviewed our direct experiences with members and their feedback from 10 candidate town halls, five regional meetings (to date), multiple telephone town halls with hundreds of thousands of members around the country, member surveys and polls, and our Public Education Forum 2020. It also helped us understand the state of play in the race, including the number of states holding delegate selections in the next few months.

We realized we needed to move from the listening and questioning phase and lean into the next step. The executive council passed a resolution that encourages affiliates to support, be actively involved with, or endorse the candidacies of Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders and/or Sen. Elizabeth Warren,  ahead of the selection of more than 65 percent of convention delegates by the end of March and before the union makes a national endorsement.

audience members AFT Votes

A day after the executive council meeting, AFT President Randi Weingarten joined 47,000 AFT leaders and activists for a telephone town hall to discuss this resolution. During the call, many leaders reported that their members support these candidates.

“While several candidates in this race share our values, three in particular—Vice President Biden, Sen. Sanders and Sen. Warren—have significant support within our membership,” Weingarten said during the town hall. “There is a real connection with these three candidates because of their record of working with us over the years on public education, higher education, healthcare, labor and civil rights.”

Woman at microphone AFT Votes

Scranton (Pa.) Federation of Teachers President Rosemary Boland, AFT Vermont President Deb Snell and Boston Teachers Union President Jessica Tang described their affiliates’ support for one of the three candidates. BTU has tapped Warren, one of Massachusetts’ own senators. AFT Vermont has chosen Sanders, likewise one of its senators. And the Scranton federation has picked native son Biden.

A year ago, the AFT’s executive council resolved to revamp our union’s entire presidential endorsement process “to engage with members, engage with candidates and then proceed from there,” Weingarten explained. Since that time, members have actively participated in the process, including in a presidential candidate forum on public education co-sponsored by the AFT

“We can’t have anybody sitting on the sidelines,” Weingarten said, praising our members’ unprecedented levels of excitement and volunteering. The result of their activism so far has prompted the candidates to better align with us on labor and civil rights, healthcare and education, she added, as well as retirement security and climate change.

Weingarten explained that the leaders at the council meeting formed a consensus on three things: that President Trump poses an existential threat to our values, our aspirations and the people we serve; that Biden, Sanders and Warren share our values; and that, after a nominee is chosen, we all need to come together and vote blue.

audience member AFT Votes

Local leaders are reporting good results from the AFT’s endorsement process so far. “Ohio will be crucial in the 2020 election, so we made sure to engage our membership across the state,” said Ohio Federation of Teachers President Melissa Cropper. “Members filled out surveys, went to candidate town halls and ran to be DNC delegates for their preferred candidates. The council’s resolution of support mirrors what our members told us when we asked them for feedback, so we’re all in to replace Donald Trump with a pro-education, pro-worker president.”

More states thanever will take part in Super Tuesday on March 3, and by the end of April, a strong majority of delegates will have been selected. The AFT wants members to be involved in helping any or all of those three candidates. “Go at it, have at it,” Weingarten said. “Support any one or the other, or make joint endorsements. It feels like this way is the next real step in how we engage with candidates who share our values. If Democrats are unified after the convention, then I believe that we can win.”

Passion for the fight

Warren is a former public school teacher and a fighter, BTU’s president observed, as shown during the Feb. 19 debate in Nevada. For example, Warren joined the Chicago Teachers Union to show her solidarity with our members. Her most prominent achievement—taking on the billionaire corporate class that’s buying its way into Washington—is Warren’s work protecting consumers, which she will continue as president. “If you missed it, now you know,” Tang said. “She took on Wall Street, and she absolutely can take on Trump.”

Snell, a Vermont nurse, observed that Sanders has walked more picket lines than all his opponents combined, given his ironclad support for labor unions that extends back 50 years, and she pointed out he is highly regarded among progressive voters in delegate-rich, union-heavy states like California, Illinois and New York. “He’s the strongest pro-worker candidate in this race,” she said, and he leads “a working-class movement for social, economic and environmental justice. We believe that Bernie will help us grow union density.”

audience members AFT Votes

Boland described how families are struggling in Rust Belt communities like Scranton, Pa. “He gets it,” she said of Biden, who placed a call to the Chicago teachers’ picket line during their strike last year, a call to CTU President Jesse Sharkey that was amplified for all to hear. “We’ve had pre-K here for 53 years, and now they want to take it away from our 3- and 4-year-olds,” Boland said, noting that Biden wants to triple Title I funding “so we can continue pre-K once and for all.” Boland believes that Biden understands what places like Scranton need: “The country needs a candidate who understands both people who go to college and those who go into the trades. We will turn out in Pennsylvania. We will be there at the April primary.”

Members on the call also discussed concerns about disinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories being spread through social media. To help educate students and voters on media literacy,  the AFT offers resources through our free online portal, Share My Lesson, which has gathered an entire collection of materials for the 2020 election.  “The public sees nurses, teachers, faculty, staff and all public employees as trusted messengers,” Weingarten noted. “We have to do what we do best: find some common ground and build on that.”

In addition to the resolution on our involvement in the presidential race, the AFT executive council passed resolutions on the new coronavirus  and on our opposition to the Trump administration’s travel ban. You can find all three on the AFT’s resolutions page.


[Annette Licitra]