February 22, 2010
1) How Much Attention Should We Pay to AFT? The American Federation of Teachers is often treated as an also-ran when it comes to national school labor issues, even on these pages. Its professed membership of 1.4 million leaves it less than half the size of NEA, but even those numbers tell less than half the story.
The legacy of Al Shanker and some reform-minded statements by current AFT President Randi Weingarten have lent the smaller union a reputation for being less hidebound than NEA. Whether that is actually the case I'll leave for others to debate, but AFT's message benefits from having almost all of its major locals in large cities and media centers: New York City, Chicago, DC, Philadelphia, Houston, Boston, Miami, Detroit, Dallas, Baltimore, and a share of Los Angeles and San Francisco with NEA. In all those places, when AFT speaks, the press listens. What isn't widely known is the union is virtually non-existent outside of those cities - except in New York State.
The U.S. Department of Labor disclosure reports for AFT and its affiliate, the New York State United Teachers, reveal some surprising figures. The national union lists seven different membership categories that total only 889,347 members. Since even this number includes non-voting members, where the other 500,000 claimed members come from is anyone's guess.
NYSUT's report lists four different membership categories that total 587,297 (including almost 173,000 retirees). So if these figures have any meaning at all, they indicate that two-thirds of AFT members reside in a single state - New York.
With such a situation, it was inevitable that in places other than New York AFT's structure would place most power in the hands of its locals. It also means national AFT has a lot less power, relative to NEA, to influence events and policies in its locals. For better or worse, the ideas Weingarten espouses as AFT president have fewer practical implications than when she espoused them as president of New York City's United Federation of Teachers.
There is an exception. When AFT's locals have financial or other internal problems, the national union has the means to exert its authority. The Detroit Federation of Teachers, for example, is a mess, and owes AFT $681,000 in back dues that are more than six months overdue. But there is little evidence that AFT has the stomach for advancing a national agenda (whatever it might be) through internal pressure on its locals.
The lesson of Miami is instructive. It is now almost seven years since the FBI raided the offices of the United Teachers of Dade, leading to the ouster of Pat Tornillo, the establishment of an AFT administratorship and the eventual election of a new slate of local officers. The gross corruption ended, but the petty infighting continued. UTD still owes its state affiliate and AFT more than $6 million in back dues and loans stemming from Tornillo's days. And no one is accusing UTD of being excessively collaborative.
After such a scandal, AFT had unprecedented power and authority to create any kind of local it wanted in Miami - and it created one virtually indistinguishable from the rest.
Well, you might say, maybe that's the kind of local the Miami members wanted. Exactly. So why does it matter what Weingarten wants?