Teachers unions were among the earliest and most enthusiastic supporters of Hillary Clinton, with the American Federation of Teachers calling her “the champion working families need” and powerful AFT President Randi Weingarten hugging her on stage.
“Hillary Clinton, a product of public schools herself, believes in the promise of public education,” Weingarten declared.
The only hitch in Clinton’s plans to rally this vital Democratic constituency: Teachers aren’t fully on board. Bernie Sanders netted more money from people who listed themselves as teachers and educators than Clinton in February, according to a POLITICO analysis of FEC records.
The Vermont senator received more than 9,000 donations and raised more than $413,000 from people who identified themselves as teachers or educators, surpassing the $394,000 raised by Clinton from about 4,500 such donors during the same month.
The division between leaders and rank-and-file members of teachers unions reflects a campaign in which Clinton has won overwhelming support from leaders of Democratic constituencies but struggled to beat back the Sanders challenge among average voters.
“For rank-and-file teachers, he’s saying a lot of the right things” about fixing inequality and enabling public-sector unions, said Marla Kilfoyle, executive director of the activist group Badass Teachers Association. “And he doesn’t have the connections that Hillary has to entities that have been detrimental to education,” she said, mentioning Clinton’s ties to education reformer and billionaire Eli Broad, among others.
In Wisconsin, a hotbed of union activism in recent years, Sanders won 54 percent of union households to Clinton’s 46 percent Tuesday night, according to exit polls (a sizable margin, but one that is is slightly smaller than Sanders’ overall support among non-union households).
In several places, entire union chapters and organizations are helping organize for Sanders. In California for example, where Democrats won’t vote until June, the unionized faculty of the University of California system affiliated with the AFT are working with student groups on get-out-the-vote drives and events.
“People are starting to think that California might play a key role, so I think they’re getting more and more interested and involved,” said UC-AFT President Bob Samuels, who was drawn to Sanders in large part because of his free college plan. Last week, Samuels huddled in Chicago with about a hundred others to strategize about how labor union members can help get out the vote for Sanders or help supporters become superdelegates ahead of this summer’s convention.
Debates between Clinton and Sanders have rarely focused on K-12 education. Bringing down student debt and the cost of college have overshadowed debates over charter schools or standardized tests on the campaign trail this cycle. But Sanders has made an impression nonetheless.
Sanders fans told POLITICO that one galvanizing moment came recently, when he took aim at a chief union adversary on the campaign trail: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
When Sanders said at a rally ahead of the Illinois primary that he wouldn’t want Emanuel’s endorsement, he “grabbed ahold of the way [teachers] in Chicago are feeling about the way our city is being run,” said Drew Heiserman, a steering committee member for the Caucus of Rank and File Educators, a group of activist Chicago Teachers Union members who helped elect CTU’s current president, Karen Lewis. The CORE Teachers endorsed Sanders in February and organized for him ahead of the Illinois primary. (The CTU has not endorsed a candidate.)
Sanders’ support is particularly strong among the most progressive and active wing of the teachers unions, teachers and union officials told POLITICO. Activist teachers have gained clout in recent years as they loudly pushed against the Common Core standards and encouraged parents and students to opt out of tests in protest of widespread testing. The movement has attracted attention, and some results: In New York, 20 percent of third- through eighth-grade students sat out of standardized tests last year.
Teachers who connect online with the Badass Teachers Association are “very, very pro-Bernie,” Kilfoyle said. The BATs didn’t endorse a candidate. But last July, the group polled members online ahead of the AFT’s endorsement: 1,409 teachers said they wanted to endorse Sanders, while 95 members favored Clinton. BATs active on social media, including those on the group’s 57,000-member Facebook page, overwhelmingly express support for Sanders.
The national unions are aware of the simmering Sanders support. But they maintain that a strong majority of members support Clinton and the early endorsements have helped them shape the primary in ways they couldn’t have otherwise. Union presidents have spent weeks traveling to primary states to help turn out Clinton support and rally teachers behind her.
Union leaders also see a powerful unifier who can help mend any lingering hard feelings about the decision to endorse early: the GOP candidates.
Teachers are “looking to see who is on the Republican side of the ticket,” NEA President Lily Eskelsen García said. “That’s got to scare an educator.”
Especially compared to the Republican candidates, Sanders and Clinton share some views on education: Both are quick to offer praise for teachers unions, and both advocate for the federal government playing a strong role in public education, including preschool. And both candidates have sought support from teachers unions while offering qualified support for charter schools — though Clinton has a longer track record of support for charters.
“I find sometimes in conversation with other teachers, [Clinton] can be very polarizing,” Kilfoyle said. “But then I say, if she’s the nominee are you going to vote for Donald Trump? And that’s a game-changer.”
The executive council for the 1.6 million member AFT, which represents nurses and college and university employees in addition to teachers, voted to endorse Clinton last July after polling members. The NEA didn’t endorse a candidate until after the primaries in 2008, but the board of the 3 million member union, which is the largest labor union in the country, followed suit in October. Three-quarters of the NEA’s executive board voted to endorse Clinton, Eskelsen García said at the time.
But throughout the summer and fall, members within both unions criticized the decision. They said the endorsement was rushed, and support for Sanders would have been higher had they taken more time to review the candidates.
The AFT endorsement “was early enough that most people didn’t know who Bernie Sanders was. People were still talking about Elizabeth Warren,” said Heiserman of the CORE Teachers. And the polling ahead of the endorsement “felt more like a push poll than a real polling of membership,” Heiserman said.
Weingarten, a longtime Clinton supporter, said that the unions “have too often been in a reactive position” by waiting to endorse a Democrat. Weingarten, who has visited several states ahead of the primaries to help rally members behind Clinton, said she sees teachers lining up behind Clinton, though there’s still lingering Sanders support.
Teachers “get why the union endorsed her, and many, many many, people believe in that,” Weingarten said.
The national AFT and NEA branches, which spent $19 million combined on candidates and political causes in 2012, haven’t spent big money on ad buys during the primary. But they have been organizing teachers across the country for Clinton. The NEA estimates that close to 19,000 members have helped campaign for Clinton since the October endorsement. Teachers have been door knocking, and an online portal allows NEA members to log in and phone bank in far-away primary states.
In Weingarten’s home state of New York, the AFT’s affiliate is opening nine offices for phone banking and canvassing ahead of the mid-April primary. And the Clinton campaign has been engaged with union members in return: Clinton senior policy adviser Ann O’Leary held a series of small roundtables with teachers ahead of the Iowa caucuses, for example.
Eskelsen García said down-ballot races can also help unite teachers behind Clinton, too: In states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, having Clinton on the ticket could help swing other elections in Democrats’ favor.
“You’ve got some very important races going on and you have to be paying attention to who those folks hope is at the top of the ticket,” Eskelsen García said.
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