The presidents of the nation’s two major teachers union — together, they count close to 5 million members — told delegates at their annual conventions that America’s democracy is at risk and placed the blame squarely on President Trump.
Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association (NEA), the largest labor union in the country with some 3 million members, said this month in Houston that she believes “our democracy itself is in grave danger of being corrupted.”
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which is among the country’s largest unions with 1.7 million members, said: “Our democracy is under assault. . . . While our democracy has never been perfect, today its very existence is threatened.”
The two leaders gave scathing appraisals of Trump’s performance, saying that he has assaulted America’s fundamental institutions and that U.S. democracy could be lost if citizens don’t fight back. Though these unions have long offered political support for Democrats, their leaders have never used such stark language to describe the state of the nation.
Eskelsen García and Weingarten also blasted Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, a longtime critic of labor unions. Weingarten announced Thursday that the AFT was suing DeVos, accusing the Education Department of making it “virtually impossible” for people to secure public service loan forgiveness.
Labor voting power has diminished over the past several decades as the structure of the economy has changed, but the union movement, and these two unions, could determine an election. Their support of Hillary Clinton in 2016 was not enough to send her to the White House, but Democratic candidates have not been shy about seeking endorsements.
There were predictions — even by union leaders — of steep membership drops after the Supreme Court ruling last year in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. The court declared that public unions could not force nonmembers who benefit from collective-bargaining contracts to pay union fees to cover costs of negotiations.
The NEA and the AFT both lost members, but nowhere near what they had projected.
After Janus, the AFT swiftly lost 85,000 fee payers, though it is almost back to where it was before, with about 1.7 million members.
According to the news organization Education Week, the NEA estimated that it would lose 10 percent of its members, though “the projected losses did not entirely realize.” The NEA had some 2.45 million full-time equivalent members in 2017-2018 and had projected dropping to just more than 2.1 million in 2019-2020. Instead, the union has budgeted for nearly 2.3 million members. (Some NEA members are part time. The union counts only full-time equivalents for its budget. Counting, the union says it has about 3 million members overall.)
Eskelsen García said at the Houston convention:
For me, this is not simply about the next election. I believe our democracy itself is in grave danger of being corrupted. Democracy was always supposed to be about the people respecting each other’s’ rights and relying on each other to be responsible for their part in making democracy work: being honest; being informed about issues; showing up to vote.
Donald Trump is pushing our beautiful, imperfect nation toward something that would break the hearts of our Founding Fathers and Mothers. Towards authoritarianism and despotism. In the history of history, wherever authoritarian, anti-democratic despots took over, they had a common strategy. It’s about who you oppress; who you scapegoat; and the institutions you corrupt. . . .
1. You suppress a free press. You don’t want people being informed with the truth. You need to carefully manage information so you always look good and good people can’t distinguish the truth from a lie.
2. You suppress wages. You kill unions. You want people underpaid and fearful of the future. You intentionally create insecurity so you can scapegoat some group as the cause and offer yourself as the savior.
3. You suppress the vote: Make it hard, inconvenient, even dangerous to register or cast a ballot, because the more that ordinary people show up to vote, the more the authoritarian loses.
4. And you suppress education. You don’t want people who are prepared to engage as critical thinkers and make informed decisions; who are curious; who ask tough questions. . . .
So, I hope I’m not being too subtle. I want to be clear. The United States of America must have a new president.
Weingarten said on Thursday at the 2019 TEACH conference in the District:
This is a moment of reckoning for our collective national character.
Our democracy is under assault. Donald Trump has waged a war on truth and on the press. He has trampled rights and responsibilities enshrined in the Constitution. He has scoffed at the rule of law and stoked America’s divisions in order to exploit them, spurring neighbors to turn on each other; driving wedges between people who actually want the same things, like parents and educators; and inciting people to fear others for absolutely no good reason. He embraces despots while distancing our allies. He has put commerce and kleptocracy over human rights.
And his economic agenda has widened the gap between the rich and the rest of us. Today, the 400 richest Americans, less than one-fourth of one percent, have more wealth than the bottom 60 percent of people in our country. Claiming it’s the “best economy ever” doesn’t make it true. Just ask people in McDowell County, WV or Lordstown, OH, communities that have been abandoned by industry, and now further betrayed by the President who promised he would help them.
Many of you see the impact of this in your classrooms every day. The bullying and hatred that permeate society are on the rise in our schools. Economic stress has you stocking more snacks for your students, and taking more money out of your own pocket for school supplies. At this moment when we need more civic participation, not less, subjects like American government and civics are squeezed out because standardized testing still compels schools to fixate on math and language arts.
This is not the first time our democracy has been at risk — but today its survival falls on us. Why? Because we are part of two institutions that are essential to the American Dream —public education and the labor movement. Public schools and labor unions are the direct pathways to broad-based prosperity and pluralism