Hillary Clinton is nervous—and the second-largest teachers’ union in the country wants to help. On Saturday, two days before Clinton’s big economic policy speech, the 1.6 million-member American Federation of Teachers announced the first big union endorsement in the 2016 cycle when it came out for the Democratic front-runner. From AFT President Randi Weingarten’s plug:
Hillary Clinton, a product of public schools herself, believes in the promise of public education. From early childhood learning through higher education, she sees how that promise can create real opportunity for kids, building a much-needed bridge to the middle class. Hillary understands that to reclaim the promise of public education, policymakers need to work with educators and their unions.
The choice of Clinton is not exactly a shocker: She and Weingarten have been tight since Clinton was a New York senator and Weingarten the head of New York’s United Federation of Teachers, and Weingarten sits on the board of the pro-Clinton super PAC Priorities USA Action. The AFT supported Clinton during her bruising primary against Obama in 2008. In subsequent years, it’s unlikely that the big teachers unions have found cause to regret that choice, as they have often disagreed with accountability-focused, charter-friendly Obama.
And Clinton seems to be the defender of traditional public schools that the unions have been longing to install in the White House: She was pushing for universal pre-K long before it was part of the national political conversation. Then again, she’s also spoken favorably of charters and has never exactly come out swinging against tying test scores to teacher performance. (In the 2008 election, as this New York Times story pointed out, it wasn’t necessary to take a position on these now incredibly contentious issues.)
Still, if it was all but inevitable that the teachers unions would endorse Clinton, why’d the AFT pull the trigger so early? The timing of the endorsement has attracted as much attention as its content. Last time, the AFT didn’t endorse Clinton until October 2007, and in recent months Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, has been urging unions not to endorse candidates until they know more about their economic positions. The obvious answer is that the Clinton camp choreographed the AFT endorsement as a safeguard against the unexpected threat posed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders—a candidate, incidentally, that unions seem to like so much that earlier this month Trumka had to remind state and local leaders that they weren’t allowed to endorse Sanders without his say-so. (Disclosure: The Sanders campaign and the AFT are both clients of the digital communications company where my husband works.)
The same Sanders supporters objected to the AFT endorsement, as the 2,300+ enraged comments on the AFT’s Facebook page indicates (“Can I get my Union dues back because you are not supporting the best candidate. FEEL THE BERN!!!!!!!!!”). As of Monday afternoon, a Change.org petition addressed to the AFT titled “Withdraw your Endorsement of Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Presidential Nomination!” had garnered 3,400 signatures. The most popular comment, from James Swatzel in Redlands, California, conveys the general sentiment of signatories:
I am a concerned union member and former union president. Hillary is for the 1%. Sanders is for the rest of us. Sanders is much more pro-union. Look at both of their big campaign contributors. Sanders, mostly unions. Clinton, mostly banks.
Over the course of the weekend, Weingarten has acknowledged the online kerfuffle on her Twitter page with upbeat comments like, “I appreciate those voicing concerns. Many strongly favor other candidates, but we saw consistently that ~2/3 majority support Hillary” and “I love the activism—including members who oppose our endorsement—we value every time members raise their voice.”
Weingarten is a realist, and she has every reason to believe that this rank-and-file showdown won’t cause members to abandon her preferred candidate, should she capture the nomination, for a Republican alternative. Or maybe she’s just developed a knack for putting a brave face on unexpected setbacks.