As the presidential campaign unfolds, we remember why the UFT is political. Al Shanker, our former president, advised us early on to support our friends and oppose our enemies. As the UFT director of legislation and political action for 16 years, I developed a corollary: Friend or foe, hold his feet to the fire. These union practices deserve ongoing discussion.
Back in the early spring of 2015 as the presidential campaign was getting underway, the AFT decided that the issues confronting the nation were so important it would begin its endorsement process early to see what members were thinking. It is the AFT, our national affiliate — rather than the UFT or NYSUT, our statewide affiliate — that makes presidential endorsements, and its criteria are similar to UFT criteria.
The AFT started its endorsement process by asking all of the candidates to come to AFT headquarters for an interview. However, none of the Republican candidates chose to do so.
Next, the AFT went to union members for input. We distributed postcards at our May and June RTC general membership meetings and emailed all retirees to encourage them to directly express their points of view to the AFT on issues and on candidates in the presidential campaign.
Hillary Clinton was the clear and overwhelming favorite of thousands of members who participated in the membership survey. In New York State, a full 78 percent of respondents favored her candidacy.
A few members wrote to me questioning the timing of the endorsement or the endorsement itself. Such questions show how important it is to understand the UFT, NYSUT and AFT endorsement process.
Here’s how it works:
The UFT Delegate Assembly uses the following criteria for endorsements in local elections: Does the candidate support our efforts to achieve, maintain and advance the economic and professional interests of our members and strengthen labor and human rights? We view that mandate as support for public education and the children we serve as the mission of our professional vocations.
As a rule of thumb, the UFT makes endorsements of candidates running for citywide and local city offices such as mayor, City Council member and others. NYSUT makes endorsements for governor, Congress and state legislative offices. The AFT handles endorsements for president. Endorsement criteria allow for supporting candidates from either party when their views and policies support our members’ interests. The pension and health coverage we enjoy as retirees today is a result of our relationship with public officials of both political parties.
Unfortunately, on the national level today, the policies of one political party are in sharp opposition to core issues vital to our members’ economic security and professional interests. The Republican crusade against public employee pensions, their attempts to destroy collective bargaining, their support for the Friedrichs case threatening fair share/agency fee and their efforts to privatize Social Security, voucher Medicare, block grant Medicaid and support voter suppression laws threatens the bedrock of the labor movement and would undo a century of progressive labor accomplishments. Their support of private school vouchers and the use of charter schools as weapons against the traditional public schools undermines our entire professional belief system.
Any endorsement we make, however, is a reasoned recommendation following consultation with our members. Then it becomes the responsibility of elected union leadership to promote the interests of our members.
Finally, each member enters the voting booth alone to make that very personal voting decision. Sometimes the strongly held personal views of members on particular issues override union recommendations. That is a democratic right and I can only respect such a position.
But the role of union leadership is to look out for members’ interests and to act on them.
Now let’s move from theory to action. In next month’s column we’ll look at some of the many and varied political actions that retirees have committed to in this most political year.