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Understanding the Unions' Internal Politics

From Detroit

The American Federation of Teachers' convention begins this morning, and it's as good a time as any to review how the teachers' unions' internal politics govern what those of us attending these policymaking sessions see.

Each local AFT affiliate gets to send a number of delegates to the national convention, allocated proportionally based on the size of its membership.

Here's where it gets complicated. The locals get to choose how the delegate elections run, a process that is shaped by each local's internal political system. This matters most in the case of the United Federation of Teachers, AFT's New York City affiliate and the largest by far. It is heavily dominated by individuals belonging to one particular "caucus," or internal political party, called Unity. Nearly all, if not all, the UFT delegates belong to Unity.

Essentially, the combination of having lots of delegates, coupled with "caucus discipline"—toeing the party line in public is a condition of membership in Unity—means that much of the convention's direction is shaped largely by this constituency. In addition, many, though not all, AFT executive council members belong to the national version of Unity, known as Progressive.

The bottom line for our purposes is that Unity/Progressive folks are often at the microphones during debate, and have a lot of pull in the resolutions committees that decide which resolutions will be put to the delegates.

Compare and contrast this to the National Education Association. NEA politics are primarily state-based, with the larger, more populous state delegations obviously carrying the most weight. In practice, state affiliates also often team up on particular issues that arise at the conventions. Steve Owens, a Vermont local union leader, has a good description on his blog of how some state leaders successfully united to defeat a new business item at this year's NEA convention.

In addition, the NEA has a few powerful internal interest groups, like the National Council of Urban Education Locals, a group representing urban NEA affiliates. NCUEA often has a hand in shaping policies, as they did in 2011 in introducing qualifications on testing into the NEA's teacher evaluations statement.

Still, it takes only 50 delegates to put a new business item to the entire delegation, a process that doesn't have a parallel for the AFT.

These differences help explain why the NEA has a somewhat more boisterous, spontaneous feel, while the AFT convention tends to come across as more businesslike and orchestrated.

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