When the nation’s two national teachers unions quickly endorsed Hillary Clinton for president in 2015, they faced intense backlash from fellow labor leaders and from rank-and-file members who thought they jumped the gun.
Thousands of members of the American Federation of Teachers signed a petition asking the union to withdraw its endorsement, and National Education Association members protested in letters that cited strong support within the organization for Bernie Sanders.
This time around, both of the powerful labor groups are slowing their endorsement process, taking more input from members and holding public events with candidates.
The unions’ endorsement processes will culminate on Saturday, when they co-host a public education forum with 2020 candidates, televised by MSNBC, with civil rights and education groups like the NAACP and Voto Latino. It will be the first time such an event has ever been held.
“We have been waiting about 72,000 years for this. It really is historic,” said NEA President Lily Eskelsen García, whose union has more than 3 million members.
The forum will include Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), billionaire Tom Steyer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
The AFT, which has 1.7 million members, became the first international labor union to endorse Hillary Clinton in July 2015. For the 2020 election, the group has completely overhauled its endorsement process. They’ve held town halls around the country with candidates and invited them to spend time with teachers. Locals are now allowed to endorse candidates apart from the national organization ― United Teachers Los Angeles has already endorsed Bernie Sanders, and AFT President Randi Weingarten said at least one other local is working on their own endorsement process.
Most major Democratic candidates have participated in one of the AFT’s town halls. Buttigieg is still working to schedule one, Weingarten said. Booker, who has had a historically tense relationship with teachers unions, hasn’t shown as much interest.
“We’ve really tried to pursue it, and let me just say it hasn’t gotten scheduled yet,” said Weingarten. A spokesperson for Booker did not respond to a request for comment.
Meanwhile, Warren and Sanders have asked for a second town hall appearance.
Still, Weingarten said she’s not sure the national union will even make an endorsement in the Democratic primary. Internal polling of AFT members show that Biden and Warren currently have the most support, followed by Sanders and other candidates.
“I could see us doing it and I could see us not doing it,” Weingarten said of a primary endorsement. “It’s important that the members, regardless of who their allegiance is to, feel like this process is fair and reasonable.”
The NEA has long collected private questionnaires from candidates surveying their views on public education. Eskelsen García said her organization has received answers from every candidate who will be on Saturday’s stage, except for Steyer. The union also has been posting video interviews with candidates, asking them to share opinions on hot-button issues like charter schools.
For Democratic candidates, union support can be vital, and the 2020 contenders are eager to show off their public education bonafides. Unions have access to millions of foot soldiers all over the country, and tens of millions of dollars to spend on elections.
In a year where teacher strikes have roiled large cities ― in blue and red states alike ― local affiliates have flexed extraordinary power. Eskelsen García said candidates seem to be paying particular attention to her union, while members ― mobilized in part by opposition to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos ― seem especially eager to get involved.
“Our folks have been activists, out on picket lines, at their state capital buildings, speaking the truth to power. I know [candidates] are seeing what I’m seeing,” Eskelsen García said.
These on-the-ground teachers and activists seem to be driving the national conversation more than in years past, too. In response, candidates are emphasizing issues like teacher pay, federal spending for education and opposition to charter schools, while generally ignoring issues of overall standards and accountability, said Thomas Toch, director of FutureEd, a think tank at Georgetown University.
“The pure political reality of this is teaching is the single largest occupation in the nation and the unions have very strong ground games and candidates know that,” Toch said.