Teachers and their unions are under assault throughout the country. Unfortunately, their ability to resist has been weakened by a series of actions over the past decade by the leadership of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), one of the largest and most influential teachers' unions. These actions have seriously damaged AFT's credibility among its membership and progressive allies when they are needed the most. Of particular concern has been the AFT's support for the Bush administration's militaristic agenda in the Middle East, including the US war on Iraq and Israel's war on Lebanon, as well as the current leadership's apparent opposition to pro-democracy struggles in the region.
Had the hundreds of billions of dollars used by the federal government to pay for the Iraq war through 2006 – the period during which the AFT supported the costly occupation and counterinsurgency operations – instead gone to education, none of the massive teacher layoffs and other draconian cutbacks to education would have been necessary. Indeed, funding for education (as well as health care, housing, public transportation, environmental protections and other human needs) could have been dramatically increased, or the federal deficit – currently being used as the excuse for cutbacks in such programs – could have been dramatically reduced. As a result, the AFT is faced with the politically difficult task of arguing for the federal government to borrow additional money to support public school teachers in the states, money Washington would have available were it not for the war the AFT supported.
In addition, the policy has lost the union the support of large segments of the rank and file at a time when that support is needed most. Despite the urgency of the issues at hand, many thousands of AFT members – angered at their leadership's anti-Arab bigotry and support for war in the Middle East – are no longer active in the union. Many of us, in recent years, have even been withholding the portion of our union dues that support the AFT's political activity, not wanting it to be used to promote the union's right-wing foreign policy agenda, and not wanting to have our money go to the campaigns of hawkish Democrats endorsed by the AFT's political action committee.
The union's hawkish stand has caused serious divisions within statewide chapters and locals, where dissent to the union's pro-war policies has not been welcomed by many in the leadership. (For example, the outgoing president of my union local referred to my opposition to the AFT's support for the Iraq war position as “demagoguery,” and the incoming president of my local, an outspoken supporter of the war, accused me of “aligning with the forces in the world that would like nothing better than to see the USA fail in Iraq.”)
In addition to problematic foreign policy positions themselves, it boggles the mind as to why a union faced with so many threats on the domestic front would risk serious divisions within its membership by adopting such right-wing foreign policy positions. Unfortunately, the AFT's insistence on taking such hawkish positions is not new.
A Militarist History
Albert Shanker, who served as the union's influential president for nearly a quarter-century until his death in 1997, was an outspoken supporter of the Vietnam War and US military intervention in Central America, as well as a booster of President Reagan's dangerous escalation of the nuclear arms race and dramatically increased military spending. He was a board member of the Committee for a Democratic Majority, a coalition of hawkish Democrats founded by Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson and professor Jeanne Kirkpatrick, who later served in the Reagan administration. Although outspoken in its criticism of Communist regimes and leftist governments – even to the point of supporting right-wing terrorists attacking Nicaragua – the AFT under Shanker was reticent about criticizing autocratic allies of the United States.
Shanker was also virtually the only prominent trade unionist to join the Committee on the Present Danger, the influential right-wing group that accused President Gerald Ford and Sec. of State Henry Kissinger of engaging in “unilateral disarmament.” Shanker and his colleagues claimed that Soviet Russia was somehow getting stronger than the United States and its allies and that the Soviets posed “a clear and present danger” to America's national security when, in reality, the Soviet Union was actually falling way behind the West in its strategic capabilities and its whole decrepit system was collapsing.
Following his death in 1997, Shanker was succeeded by Sandra Feldman, who in turn was replaced by Shanker protege Edward McElroy in 2004. McElroy joined AFT Secretary-Treasurer Nat LaCour as an American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) vice president. Although much of the national labor federation had moved to the left since the 1970's, McElroy and LaCour stood out for their unrepentant right-wing agenda, serving as the only members of the AFL-CIO executive council who failed to express opposition to the George W. Bush doctrine of preventative war.
Support for the Iraq War
In January 2003, antiwar activists were scrambling to prevent a US invasion of Iraq by challenging the Bush administration's ludicrous claims about Iraq having reconstituted its chemical – and biological – weapons capabilities, offensive delivery system and nuclear weapons program. In an apparent effort to discredit such efforts and give credibility to the Bush administration's fearmongering, the AFT leadership went on record claiming that Iraq posed, “a unique threat to the peace and stability of the Middle East” and the national security interests of the United States.
This decision to parrot the Bush administration's alarmist and unsubstantiated rhetoric regarding Iraq's alleged military capabilities came in the face of substantial evidence to the contrary presented by UN arms inspectors, independent arms control specialists, investigative journalists, academic journals and analyses by independent research institutes that cast serious doubts upon such allegations. However, the AFT leadership in Washington apparently believed it knew more than arms control experts on the ground in Iraq, insisting that in order to avoid war, “There can be no equivocation. The Iraqi regime must disarm.”
Given that the Iraqi regime had already disarmed as required years earlier and was already allowing unfettered inspections inside Iraq to confirm the disarmament, the demand by the AFT leadership appears to have been simply an excuse to back a US takeover of that oil-rich country.
In light of public opinion polls indicating that the only reason a majority of Americans would support a US invasion of Iraq was if they believed that Iraq constituted a threat to the national security of the United States, the decision by the leadership of one of the most powerful labor unions in the country – particularly one representing hundreds of thousands of primary, secondary and university teachers – to go on record making such false claims contributed to the political climate that made the US invasion of Iraq possible.
To this day, the AFT leadership has never apologized for misleading its members and the American public about Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD's) or the alleged Iraqi threat.
Even after US forces invaded and occupied Iraq and the Bush administration admitted that Iraq had not failed to disarm as they and its supporters in AFT executive had claimed, the AFT continued to support the war. At the 2004 AFT biannual convention, the leadership rebuked antiwar elements of the union by passing a resolution declaring, in part, that, “we urge the Bush administration, the Congress and the American people to reject calls for the precipitous withdrawal of US forces.” The resolution did not define what “precipitous” meant, and listed no criteria for when, or under what conditions, AFT leaders believed US forces should come back home, a choice of words widely interpreted to mean support for an indefinite US military occupation. This hawkish stance was in sharp contrast to the AFL-CIO as a whole and most of its other member unions, which had gone on record in opposition to the US war in Iraq and in support of an immediate withdrawal of American troops from that country.
There was widespread opposition within the union to the AFT's continued support for the war, however. In addition to rank-and-file opposition to the occupation in terms of its impact on the people of Iraq, including Iraqi trade unionists, there was also concern raised among the membership regarding its economic costs. It was presciently pointed out how supporting such a financially costly war could result in massive cutbacks to domestic programs, including education.
Meanwhile, the AFT leadership backed its hawkish position on Iraq with action: the majority of AFT's political contributions (funded from the dues of its members) in 2004 and 2006 went primarily to candidates who supported the Iraq war.
Although the union later criticized the Bush administration for misleading the nation about Iraq's WMD's, it was far more forgiving of Democrats who had done the same: in a 2002 meeting with McElroy, LaCour and other union leaders, then-senator Hillary Clinton insisted that Iraq had somehow reconstituted its WMD's and constituted a threat to the United States. Union officials later acknowledged her categorical claims played a major role in formulating their January 2003 statement. Despite being misled by Clinton, the AFT endorsed her 2008 presidential bid against Barack Obama, who had opposed the war and challenged the false claims of an Iraqi threat. To this day, Clinton has refused to apologize for misleading union leaders on Iraq's military capabilities or for her vote authorizing the war. The union poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into key primary states in an unsuccessful effort to defeat Clinton's antiwar challenger, with AFT president McElroy insisting that – despite the Clinton-backed invasion having alienated much of the international community from the United States- it was she, not Obama, who would “improve America's standing in the world.”
Backing Bush on Lebanon
The AFT has also been eager to endorse the wars of America's allies. The AFT leadership was able to push through a resolution in the 2006 convention defending another aspect of the Bush administration's militaristic agenda in the Middle East: support for Israel's assault that summer on Lebanon, which killed nearly 800 Lebanese civilians, destroyed billions of dollars worth of that country's infrastructure and caused widespread environmental damage.
As with the decision by the AFT leadership in 2003 to repeat the Bush administration's false claims about Iraq, the 2006 resolution repeated a series of false claims by the Bush administration regarding the Lebanese Hezbollah movement and the Palestinian Hamas movement.
For example, the resolution claimed that Hezbollah, “proudly takes credit for the 1983 bombing of the Beirut barracks” that killed 258 US Marines. In reality, while some individuals who later became part of that extremist Islamist group may indeed have been involved in that attack, Hezbollah has repeatedly denied having any role. My repeated requests to the AFT leadership for evidence to back its claim that Hezbollah “proudly takes credit” for the attack have remained unanswered.
In defending Israel's war on Lebanon and its bloody assault on heavily populated areas of the besieged Gaza Strip, the AFT went on record claiming that Hezbollah and Hamas were, “holding the people of Lebanon and the Palestinians in Gaza hostage,” as part of an effort to back the Bush administration's insistence that it was these Palestinian and Lebanese militias that were ultimately responsible for the deaths of their own countrymen, not the indiscriminate bombardments of civilian areas by US-supplied Israeli forces. This was also apparently an effort by the AFT to discredit human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which published detailed empirical reports rejecting the Bush administration's claims that Hamas and Hezbollah used human shields or were otherwise responsible for the large numbers of civilian deaths. The AFT has refused to respond to requests to provide evidence countering the findings of these reputable human rights organizations.
The AFT also went on record claiming that the aims of Hezbollah and Hamas are to, “carry out the agendas of Iran and Syria.” Most analysts familiar with the parties, however, argue that the provocative actions by these indigenous Islamic groups were based upon their own issues and that neither the Iranian nor Syrian governments – despite some financial and military support – had any operational control over these militias. Passing a resolution claiming that these militias were somehow being directed by foreign governments – governments that happened to be targeted by the Bush administration for sanctions, diplomatic isolation and possible military action – appears to have been part of an effort by the AFT leadership, despite the lack of evidence to support such accusations, to give credence to the administration's efforts to further its broader Middle East agenda.
Similarly, in an effort to undermine Syrian efforts to reopen negotiations with Israel and the United States, the AFT resolution claimed that both Hezbollah and Hamas were attacking, “Israeli cities and civilians with rockets, mortars and other heavy weapons supplied to them by … Syria.” In reality, the Hezbollah rockets fired into Israel appear to have been almost exclusively of Iranian origin, and the smaller, less-sophisticated Hamas rockets fired into Israel were largely homemade, with components smuggled in from Egypt. Again, the AFT has refused to provide evidence to back its claims that Syria supplied Hamas or Hezbollah with rockets.
While the AFT has done an admirable job of pushing the need to close the learning gap between middle-class white children and low-income children of color here in the United States, the union rejects such notions of equality when it comes to young Israeli and Arab victims of political violence. For example, the AFT has quite appropriately denounced Hezbollah and Hamas for the deaths of Israeli civilians, but at no point has the AFT ever expressed any concerns over the far greater number of civilians, including hundreds of Lebanese and Palestinian children, who have been killed in recent years by US-supplied weapons and ordnance provided to Israel during that period. To the AFT leadership, the deaths of innocent civilians in Gaza or Lebanon, like the hundreds of thousands of civilians who have died as a result of the AFT-backed US war on Iraq, are apparently of little concern.
AFT Under Weingarten
In 2008, McElroy was succeeded as president by Randi Weingarten, who had led the important New York City chapter of the union. Weingarten came into office advocating an agenda that not only pushed for improved benefits for teachers and support staff in the nation's public schools, but advocated increasing state and federal funding for education and making it possible for schools to serve as community centers that could offer health and nutrition services for needy children (both of which are critical for the learning process). Instead, the AFT under her leadership has found itself on the defensive in the face of a right-wing assault on education.
Indeed, her leadership has been seriously damaged by her support for AFT's militaristic foreign policy, as well as her anti-Arab racism and her apparent opposition to the largely nonviolent struggles – labeled intifadas in Arabic – against autocratic rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, and elsewhere.
While head of the New York chapter, she contributed to a racist smear campaign that led to the dismissal of a newly appointed Arab-American school principal who had previously worked in an office in which some young volunteers printed out T-shirts which read, “NYC Intifada.” In the face of vicious right-wing attacks falsely accusing her of supporting terrorism, the principal – a native Arabic speaker – who had nothing to do with the T-shirts, correctly pointed out that intifada simply means “shaking off” and does not connote violence. However, Weingarten – who does not speak Arabic – writing on the opinion page of The New York Post, falsely claimed that the use of the word was actually an endorsement of “rampant violence and bloodshed” and constituted “warmongering.” Such intifadas, according to the AFT president, are inherently, “campaigns or ideas tied to violence” and should be “instinctively denounce[d].”
In reality, the word came into common usage in the West during the first Palestinian intifada in 1987-1993 against the Israeli occupation, which – while it included well-publicized incidents of stone-throwing and several slayings of suspected collaborators – was largely nonviolent, consisting primarily of peaceful demonstrations, strikes, boycotts, tax refusal, occupations, blockades and the creation of alternative institutions. The Palestinian Center for the Study of Nonviolence, in a comprehensive study of resistance activities during the first two years of the uprising in the Palestinians' occupied homeland, noted that 92 percent of the actions called for by the popular committees were explicitly nonviolent.
Intifada was also used by the Lebanese in their successful nonviolent uprising in 2005 against Syrian domination of their government and the ongoing presence of Syrian troops in their country. As far back as 1985, the word “intifada” was used to describe the nonviolent insurrection in Sudan against the US-backed dictatorial regime of Jaafar Nimeiri. In more recent years, it has been used in reference to the nonviolent resistance struggle in the Western Sahara against Moroccan occupation forces. And, during the past six months, it has been the term used by pro-democracy activists in their overwhelmingly nonviolent struggles against autocratic regimes in North Africa and the Middle East. Indeed, the only intifada that engaged in extensive violence was the second Palestinian intifada early in the last decade. Any survey of the academic literature on this topic confirms that the origins and use of the term “intifada” are very different from what Weingarten claimed.
Despite efforts by me and other Middle East scholars to get her to withdraw the statement, however, Weingarten has refused to correct the disinformation, even in light of recent events. By remaining on record that those of us who support these pro-democracy intifadas are endorsing “rampant violence and bloodshed” and engaging in “warmongering” and should “instinctively denounce” them, the AFT president appears to be putting a prominent voice of American labor on the side of dictators and “stability” over freedom and democracy.
Recently, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) ruled that those who forced the principal, Debbie Almontaser, from her post as a result of the false claims against her – including claims that “intifada” connoted violence – were guilty of discrimination based upon her Arab background.
Costs to the Union
Now, with teachers being laid off in record numbers and educational rights under assault, the AFT – now weakened by the alienation of its progressive base – is trying to mobilize its membership against the onslaught.
In addition to facing massive budget cuts, teachers – along with allies in organized labor, community groups and university schools of education – are battling “reformers” largely aligned with corporate interests.
There is a growing movement to hand over urban schools to anti-union corporations and to appoint as heads of school boards corporate executives with little to no background in education.
The Obama administration, while not completely giving in to the “reformers,” has largely failed to defend the teachers and their allies. The administration's refusal to rescind No Child Left Behind makes it likely that the overemphasis on standardized testing rather than on more holistic approaches to learning – along with the decreasing input allowed by teachers and community groups – will probably continue.
Fortunately, there is a strong and growing progressive wing in the union which succeeded in reversing the AFT's position in support of the Iraq war at the 2006 convention. A number of major locals, and even entire statewide chapters, broke with the national leadership even before that in coming out against the war. In addition, AFT dissidents have been disproportionately represented in US Labor Against the War and other progressive union activities that have challenged the ongoing wars in the Middle East.
These efforts have been primarily supported by the AFT's younger members, however, who – due to their lack of seniority – are now losing their jobs by the thousands.
As a result, until the AFT abandons its right-wing foreign policy agenda, the union's credibility will continue to be compromised, and embattled teachers will be without the kind of leadership they so desperately need.
Earlier versions of this article appeared in Foreign Policy in Focus in 2008 and AlterNet in 2009.