The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) is the second-largest teachers’ union in the United States. The union represents roughly 1.5 million members, most of whom work in teaching and education-related jobs as well as nursing. The union is a member of the AFL-CIO.
The AFT, like most public-sector unions, is a major player in liberal policy and Democratic Party politics. The union and union president Rhonda “Randi” Weingarten are associated with the Democracy Alliance network of liberal mega-donors. AFT and its associated political committees are also substantial contributors to Democratic candidates and party committees: According to the Center for Responsive Politics, those committees have spent upwards of $80 million on federal elections, with $79 million going to Democrats and left of center groups.
The union’s political positions focus on preserving privileges for teachers largely regardless of teacher quality. The AFT is a staunch defender of “tenure” policies that make it exceptionally difficult to remove ineffective teachers from the classroom. Additionally, the union opposes many efforts to bring pension contributions and expenditures into long-run balance.
Numerous AFT local unions have been affected by serious corruption committed by senior officers in the local unions. The Washington Teachers Union, the United Teachers of Dade, and the Broward Teachers Union all suffered substantial financial losses from financial corruption committed by their officers. The AFT locals in Chicago and New York City have also been embroiled in highly controversial local politics.
Union president Randi Weingarten is a longtime union official, having served previously as president of the AFT-affiliated local teachers union in New York City, the United Federation of Teachers. In her work as New York’s teacher union president, Weingarten gained infamy for her aggressive defense of teachers awaiting dismissal hearings for misconduct in the city’s “rubber rooms.” One principal went so far as to suggest Weingarten “would protect a dead body in the classroom.”
The American Federation of Teachers grew out of the early labor movement of the 1910s, officially organizing in 1916. After New Deal-era labor laws restricted management interference in labor union organizing, the AFT grew substantially and began to engage in collective bargaining throughout the cities of the industrial Northeastern United States.
By the 1960s, the AFT and its local unions were making substantial impacts on education policy. In 1968, the AFT local in New York City led by Albert Shanker staged three strikes that shuttered 85 percent of New York’s public schools in an attempt to reverse decisions to decentralize school control. The strikes succeeded despite strong objections from New York’s African-American communities.
The Albert Shanker Era
After rising to prominence by leading the strikes in New York, United Federation of Teachers union president Albert Shanker was elected president of the national union in 1974. Shanker double-jobbed as UFT and AFT president simultaneously, an arrangement that lasted until he stepped down as UFT leader in 1986.
When Shanker took over the AFT, teaching was already America’s most unionized occupation based on a factory-style model of adversarial labor-management relations. Despite his combative reputation in New York, Shanker was open to limited educational reforms, endorsing at various points in his career performance pay, teacher licensing exams, and peer review. Shanker also backed proposals for alternative management of some public schools that evolved into the modern charter school movement.
After Shanker: Feldman and McElroy
In 1997, Shanker, then suffering from cancer that would eventually kill him, stepped down as AFT president in favor of Sandra Feldman, then the UFT president. Feldman was a longtime Shanker colleague and ally, supporting his controversial 1968 strike. As UFT leader, Feldman faced criticism for insisting on prohibiting the NYC school system from reassigning successful teachers to failing schools. Feldman was also a close ally of New York mayor David Dinkins (D).
While at the national AFT, Feldman worked closely with Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) on the No Child Left Behind Act. Feldman was a staunch opponent of the school choice proposals offered by Republican-led legislatures in Michigan, Ohio, and other states.
Feldman fell ill with cancer in the early 2000s, and stepped down for health reasons in 2004. She was succeeded by AFT secretary-treasurer Edward McElroy, who gained a reputation for reforming the internal practices of the union, tying it more closely with the AFL-CIO and strengthening the AFT’s political operations. During the 2008 U.S. presidential election, McElroy aligned the AFT with the campaign of Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.).
In 2008, McElroy stepped aside and the union chose UFT president Randi Weingarten to succeed him. Weingarten had led the UFT since 1998, battling city mayors Rudy Giuliani (R) and Michael Bloomberg (I) over school reforms and contracts.
Weingarten gained a reputation in New York for her aggressive defense of teachers in the city’s infamous “rubber room” disciplinary process, under which teachers facing adjudications of misconduct continue collecting their paychecks in Temporary Reassignment Centers rather than classrooms, often for years. When she was elevated to the national AFT presidency, Weingarten was praised as a reform-minded union leader, given her rhetorical openness to changes to teacher compensation and assignments.
However, in practice Weingarten and the AFT continue to resist most reforms. The union opposed accountability regulations advanced by the Department of Education to implement the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act. The union also organized opposition to various public-employee labor reforms proposed by state legislatures, helping lead the futile efforts to remove Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (R) from office in 2012.
Weingarten is a longtime confidant of 2016 Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. AFT contributed $500,000 to Clinton-associated nonprofits, including the Clinton Foundation and Clinton Global Initiative, during its 2016 fiscal year. The AFT backed Clinton early in the Democratic Party primaries, formally endorsing the former Secretary of State in July 2015. During Clinton’s 2016 presidential candidacy, commentators speculated that Weingarten might be asked to serve as Clinton’s Secretary of Education had she been elected. During the campaign, former Weingarten aide Hartina Flournoy served as chief of staff to former President Bill Clinton.
Political Positions and Expenditures
Like most labor unions, the American Federation of Teachers has an aggressive political advocacy operation. The union’s 2016 annual report shows that the AFT spent $28.6 million on political activities and lobbying in that fiscal year.
The American Federation of Teachers is a major political player in the debates over education. Nationally, AFT puts pressure on federal and state Education Departments to protect teacher job protections. The AFT is a vocal critic of reforms to teacher tenure and expansions of charter schools, with aggressive public relations campaigns against charter school and tenure reform advocates.
Teacher tenure, the practice of protecting teachers from firing after as few as two years on the job, has become highly controversial in recent years. AFT and front groups it and its local unions fund have aggressively attacked tenure reformers, most notably former journalist Campbell Brown. In response to charges by Weingarten that Brown was controlled by her husband, Republican advisor Dan Senor, center-left columnist Kristen Powers condemned the AFT’s tactics.
The AFT has also targeted charter schools and their supporters. The union presses heavily for what it calls “accountability” for the publicly funded but independently run schools: In practice, accountability more closely resembles a program of no new charters. The AFT funds groups like Center for Popular Democracy that push the “accountability” narrative. AFT president Randi Weingarten praised the defeat of a measure to prevent charter school expansion in Massachusetts in 2016. Other AFT officials have gone farther; the president of AFT’s Georgia state division compared a finding that Georgia ranked high in school choice with Chicago ranking high in murder rates.
The AFT is a major funder of liberal political causes and Democratic political candidates both through political action committees and union dues. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the AFT’s political committees spent over $79 million to help Democrats get elected to federal office from the beginning of Federal Election Commission records through November 2016. Of AFT’s total federal contributions, over 99 percent supported Democrats.
The AFT and its local unions are also deeply involved in state and local politics. The Center for Responsive Politics reports that AFT was the fifth-largest organization contributor to the Democratic Governors Association in the 2014 midterm election cycle, with $2,725,000 in contributions reported. AFT local unions strongly supported the mayoral election campaigns of Democratic Party-aligned mayors like Martin Walsh of Boston, James Kenney of Philadelphia, and Sylvester Turner of Houston.
In addition to contributions to candidates, parties, party committees, and candidates’ committees, the AFT spends large sums on lobbying and contributing to non-party political organizations. The AFT is reportedly a member of the progressive donor clearinghouse Democracy Alliance, and the union has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to the organization.
In 2016, Department of Labor records show that the AFT spent $28.6 million on political expenditures and lobbying. Notable recipients of AFT contributions and political spending include Democratic-aligned SuperPACs Priorities USA Action ($1 million), Emily’s List ($625,000), and American Bridge 21st Century ($300,000); Working America, the AFL-CIO political mobilization project for non-unionized workers ($329,000); the Clinton Foundation ($250,000); progressive organizing groups including the Center for Popular Democracy ($215,000); and liberal think tanks such as the State Innovation Exchange ($200,000).
Randi Weingarten has been president of the American Federation of Teachers since 2009. Prior to taking office as head of the national union, Weingarten led the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the AFT local union representing teachers in New York City. A career union functionary, Weingarten worked for former UFT and AFT president Sandra Feldman as an attorney from 1986 to 1998 before winning union office in the late 1990s.
Loretta Johnson, the AFT Secretary-Treasurer, is also a longtime union officer. Before her elevation to the AFT Executive Board in 2008, she served as president of the para-professional division of the Baltimore Teachers Union and the Maryland state chapter of the AFT. In 2016, Johnson received $281,460 in gross salary with total disbursements of $358,225.
Mary Catheryn Ricker serves as the Executive Vice President of the AFT. Prior to her elevation to the national executive board, Ricker served as president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers. In 2016, Ricker was paid $242,097 in gross salary with total disbursements of $311,311.
AFT has a separate 501(c)(3), the American Federation of Teachers Education Foundation. It has received substantial grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, including to promote and assist in the implementation of the Common Core State Standards curriculum initiatives. The Common Core grants caused controversy within the union, and the AFT ultimately broke future financial ties with the Gates Foundation.