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AFT v. NRA: Is Twitter Spat a Preview of Stormy Election Season for Education?

Two big topics in education politics this election season—union power and gun control—were at the center of a clash this week between the American Federation of Teachers and the National Rifle Association.

At a time when teachers have walked out of schools to protest their pay and funding for schools in general in states like Oklahoma and West Virginia, the ability of teachers' unions to influence elections is one major political story to watch in 2018, when 36 states will hold races for governor and thousands of state legislative seats will be up. At the same time, the NRA's power over state capitals could be tested in some places if the student-driven March for Our Lives movement, formed after the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., is able to turn dissatisfication about current gun-control laws into power at the ballot box. 

Here's some background: The AFT has begun a campaign in recent weeks taking Wells Fargo bank to task for providing loans to firearms manufacturers—$431 million worth of loans since 2012, according to a Bloomberg report—as well as managing accounts for the NRA. Last year, about 1,600 families with AFT members benefited from Wells Fargo's "Union Privilege" program for home mortgages, and 20,000 AFT members benefit from the program. 

  • On March 29, AFT President Randi Weingarten wrote to Wells Fargo CEO and President Tim Sloan asking for specifics about its relationships with the NRA, saying she hoped the bank would "join other responsible corporate leaders and take a stand" to protect children from gun violence.
  • On April 3, Sloan responded by highlighting the bank's various activities involving the AFT and education philanthropy. But he declined to specify its relationship with the NRA or firearms companies. Sloan said he'd be happy to meet with AFT leaders to discuss the matter further.
  • On April 6, Weingarten said she'd be interested in a meeting with Sloan, but also signaled the union's position wasn't open to negotiation. She also said she would release the union's correspondence with the bank. 
  • On April 7 Weingarten said in a statement that, "If Tim doesn't ditch his guns business, we'll ditch Wells Fargo. We are glad Tim wants to meet; but no words will dissuade us from our view that our society must value people over profits." Weingarten is ready to encourage the AFL-CIO and other groups to drop their relationships with the bank as well. 

Then on Tuesday, the NRA's video channel, NRATV, weighed in on the AFT-Wells Fargo dispute. Host Grant Stinchfield blasted the AFT as a radical tool of government overreach that was trying to strong-arm Wells Fargo into doing its bidding and, by extension, attack the NRA. Stinchfield said. "I'll put this bluntly: Randi Weingarten and the AFT are one of the greatest threats to our children." NRA also tweeted this out about the union, showing Weingarten with Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts:

You can watch Stinchfield's video at the top of this blog post.

In response, Weingarten asked incredulously if the host had called teachers lazy, then added this tweet:

She stressed that it is the union's right "not to do business with a company that supports the NRA." Since the back-and-forth between the NRA and Weingarten, the union president has touted not just the union's support for the teachers who've walked out in Kentucky, Oklahoma, and West Virginia, but also highlighted how teachers in Oklahoma are interested in running for office. (See our colleague Daarel Burnette II's story about a similar phenomenon in Oklahoma two years ago.)

Conflicts between teacher politics and financial investments involving the gun industry isn't new.

In February, a Forbes analysis found that teacher pension funds in 12 states have investments in gun manufacturers' stocks, including Arizona, California, Florida, and New York. Mike Antonucci at the 74 has also detailed how California teacher pension funds' investments in things like firearms don't necessarily match union leaders' political stances.

Getting more candidates elected who are more inclined to take the AFT's point of view in states like Oklahoma or West Virginia won't be easy. But this week's social-media rumble between the union and the NRA might not be the last time the two groups square off very publicly in what promises to be a very volatile election season.

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