National teachers’ union looks to capitalize on labor unrest
(District of Columbia) Driven by the success of teacher strikes in deeply conservative states like West Virginia and Oklahoma to the recent unrest in liberal California, the American Federation of Teachers began this week a lobbying and public relations campaign aimed at getting state lawmakers and Congress to spend more on public schools.
The efforts include a “six figure” ad buy across all media platforms, as well as rallies, community events and petition drives.
Although in a release earlier this week, AFT President Randi Weingarten made no mention of teacher salaries—which drove every labor action by classroom educators over the past two year—clearly benefits and pay are the elephant in the room.
“After a decade of neglect and austerity, the American people have had enough—and want a reordering of priorities to make their lives better,” Weingarten said in a statement. “That’s why educators and communities have hit the streets over the last year to demand not just a small course correction, but a sustainable investment in public schools and colleges.”
The AFT, which represents 1.7 million teachers nationwide, is a key political player on the national stage wielding influence well beyond its modest financial means. According to Open Secret, a campaign watchdog website, the AFT took in about $20 million in contributions in 2018 while spending just $1.9 million on lobbying.
That said, today there are about 4 million elementary and secondary school teachers in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Education. It is unclear exactly how many retired educators there are in the U.S. currently, but an estimated 75,000 leave school service every year, typically close to age 60—nearly 200,000 of them receive a pension from the California State Teacher’s Retirement System alone.
Such numbers, when combined and motivated, comprise a significant political force that is largely unrestrained by partisan critics.
In addition to West Virginia and Oklahoma, teachers in Kentucky, Arizona and North Carolina have all pushed entrenched GOP leadership to increase pay, reduce class sizes and provide more resources to schools.
The most recent victories came this year in Democratic strongholds of Los Angeles and Oakland, as well as Denver, which is considered more of a mix politically.
If there are likely targets for the next wave of teacher unrest—look at districts in Florida and Washington State. Representatives of both states were quoted in the AFT release this week.
“The lack of investment in Florida’s schools is a real crisis,” said Florida Education Association President Fedrick Ingram, in a statement. “And when our students are in crisis, we know that educators are the first responders. We just need the politicians in Tallahassee to give us the tools necessary to do that.”
AFT Washington President Karen Strickland added: “Our budgets reflect our values, so investing in our students and our communities is about choices. Our state’s tax system is the most regressive in the country, so we’re effectively telling our students: Your higher education is less important than protecting the wealth of Washington’s highest earners.”