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By Jaclyn Diaz
Thousands of American Federation of Teachers members are set to descend on Pittsburgh July 13 for the union’s biennial convention, where they will lay out the organization’s goals for the next two years.
It’s a “scary and solemn time for our country,” Randi Weingarten, the AFT’s president, said.
The union represents 1.7 million members largely in public education, and the Janus v. AFSCME U.S. Supreme Court decision presented a unique challenge to AFT. Janus overturned a 1977 Supreme Court ruling that allowed public-sector unions to collect agency fees from nonmembers to help cover the cost of collective bargaining.
Teachers are facing anti-labor battles at the local level, too. Groups tied to Republican billionaires opposed to unions have launched a multi-pronged campaign in Washington, California, and Oregon with the goal of shrinking union ranks by 127,000 members.
“This is a new world for teachers,” Harley Shaiken, a labor and economics professor at the University of California Berkeley, said.
The union aims to come back swinging through the ballot box. Many of the AFT’s constitutional resolutions are focused squarely on politics, and that’s where much of the union’s energy and resources will go during and after the convention. Over the course of the four-day convention, Weingarten’s message to members will focus on the path forward, she told Bloomberg Law.
In the wake of Janus, unions are “trying to maintain the coercive status quo through a series of countermeasures” involving legislative changes, Max Nelsen, the director of policy for the Freedom Foundation, said. Nelsen’s organization is one of those opposed to public sector unions and has been involved in lawsuits against union agency fees.
This effort “will continue to alienate many of their more conservative members and invite additional litigation,” which is ultimately unwise, he said.
Labor has been criticized by anti-union groups for ties to the Democratic Party, but that close relationship will evidently continue.
The AFT is trying to bridge the gap within the Democratic Party by having both former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speak at the convention. Clinton was often seen as the establishment head of the Democratic Party, while Sanders was viewed as the progressive choice.
“It’s really important to be together right now. This is an inflection point in our country we are in a crisis in our democracy,” Weingarten said of anti-union legislation and economic policies that hurt workers. “This crisis requires us to transcend some differences to move together as movement in this moment. What better way of showing that than to have both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton at the convention?”
This is no surprise, Dan DiSalvo, an associate professor of political science at the City College of New York, said. DiSalvo is also a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a domestic policy think tank.
“It’s a big important year for Democrats. Doubling down on politics in the short run is entirely sensible position for the AFT leadership,” he said.
The AFT is homing in on the 2018 midterms especially. It is mounting a voter mobilization campaign called REV It Up. It will engage members, their families, high school students, and the general public to elect “pro-public service and pro-worker candidates at the local, state and federal levels in the 2018 elections.”
“Because the state of teachers is so shaped by government, not to have a political voice would not be serving their members,” Shaiken said.
The union will support labor-friendly politicians and its own member candidates and will lobby for pro-union legislation.
There’s a question of how successful pro-union legislation and the Democratic partnership could be, however, DiSalvo said.
The Democrats are the minority in the House and Senate. Even if the midterm elections turn out in the Democrats’ favor, there is still likely opposition from President Donald Trump, he said.
“The odds are against major federal legislation to help public sector unions,” DiSalvo said.
They might have more success passing union-friendly laws in blue states, as happened in New York and New Jersey recently, he said. But they will also contend with groups like the Freedom Foundation at the local level.
The foundation opposes local laws that “preemptively undermine the Janus decision” and that “deny public employees of their First Amendment rights.”
To face down that opposition, the AFT will pull from ally groups and the teacher walk outs in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona earlier this year, Weingarten said.
“That requires us to work together, and acting together to overcome fear and polarization,” she said.
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