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July 17, 2004

1)  McElroy Takes Helm of AFT. “If the dictionary had a definition of trade unionist, it would have Ed McElroy’s picture on it,” said Mark Richard, AFT’s administrator of the United Teachers of Dade, the other day.

Can you imagine anyone saying the same thing about Reg Weaver or Bob Chase, Dennis Van Roekel or Lily Eskelsen?

In the last seven years, I have heard many different opinions about what constitute the philosophical differences between AFT and NEA, if any. Without a doubt, the clearest distinction is that AFT is “comfortable in its skin” as a labor union. A majority of NEA members and affiliates want nothing to do with the AFL-CIO. Many NEA state affiliates flatly deny they are labor unions. Most NEA members want to be associated in the public’s mind with doctors, lawyers and engineers – not truckers, mine workers and longshoremen.

AFT, on the other hand, embraces the labor union image. As I recall those long ago days when I was a member of Local 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the AFT delegates and officers I meet remind me very clearly of the way the IBEW folks looked, talked, thought and acted.

Under Al Shanker and Sandra Feldman, that distinction wasn’t always obvious. But in Edward McElroy, AFT now has a president who is 100 percent old-fashioned unionist.

Rumors persist that McElroy is a placeholder until Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers, establishes herself more fully. But those rumors don’t account for McElroy’s own intentions.

In his first speech as AFT president, McElroy hit all the usual highlights – damning Bush, urging activism for Kerry, promising to help fix and fund the No Child Left Behind Act, etc. But he also spoke at length about the labor movement as a whole – something you will never hear from an NEA president, leader of the largest single union in the nation.

“It’s no secret that these are not the easiest times for labor unions,” McElroy said, noting that although AFT has grown in the last two years, it was an exception. He recounted the declining membership numbers in private sector unions, now constituting less than 9 percent of the U.S. work force. “It hasn’t been a walk in the park lately for public sector unions, either,” he said.

McElroy told the delegates they had a responsibility to assist other unions the way the industrial unions assisted AFT in its formative days. “Steel workers and teachers. Auto workers and nurses. Factory workers and government workers. We all have a bond,” he said.

I’m not qualified to comment knowledgeably on the future of American organized labor, but with McElroy, AFT appears ready to tie its own fate to the movement, rather than try to blaze trails outside of it. It is an approach different than that of NEA, and I will watch with some curiosity the contrasting prospects of each union in the near future.

2)  Iraq Resolution Divides Left from Far Left. Resolution 41, on Iraq, was the focus of the longest and most intense debate of the entire four-day convention. The battle was between those who supported the resolution and the language that had been approved by the AFT Executive Council, against those whose more radical anti-war resolutions were precluded by the AFT International Relations Committee concurrence of Resolution 41. The anti-war delegates used the debate to attempt to delete the portion of the 113-line resolution they found most offensive: the directive for AFT to “urge the Bush administration, the Congress and the American people to reject calls for the precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces.” These delegates want the immediate and total withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.

The language of the resolution can best be described as supportive of the position of the Democratic Party on Iraq. Indeed, many of those who spoke in favor of the resolution said the best way to achieve its objectives was to elect John Kerry as President. They couldn’t really grasp the reasons for opposition. “It [the resolution] could hardly be more critical of the invasion of Iraq,” said Tom Mooney of the Ohio Federation of Teachers.

But Mooney was wrong. The people who spoke against the resolution consider the war in Iraq to have been from the very beginning fraudulent, illegitimate imperialism on the part of the Bush administration. They spoke at great length of Iraq’s right to self-determination and democracy, and to its need for reconstruction for the benefit of its people. They claim the invasion brought chaos and they emphasized the thousands of U.S. and Iraqi lives lost. They even said the war undermined the economic and social rights of the Iraqi people.

As a veteran, I feel especially sensitive to those who opposed the war. Hollywood images notwithstanding, America’s soldiers, sailors and airmen always want war to be the very last option, for obvious reasons, and it can be legitimately argued that the war in Iraq was not the very last option.

I wonder, however, how the most radical anti-war activists can so quickly forget what Iraq was like before the war. If the war was fraudulent and illegitimate, by what right do we hold Saddam Hussein in custody? Should he not be set free? What self-determination did Iraqis have before the invasion? If they have chaos now, who among them would prefer the stability of Saddam, Uday, Qusay and the Tikrit mafia? If thousands of lives were lost in the war and its aftermath, how many now live because they were not tortured, beaten, raped or starved by Saddam’s thugs? If U.S. policy has alienated the Arab and Islamic world, how many Kuwaitis, Kurds, Jordanians, and even Syrians and Iranians (never mind the Christians and Jews), are sleeping better now with Saddam gone?

Oppose the war. Denounce the President. Hold rallies and marches. Speak out. Do what your conscience dictates. But don’t pontificate as though Saddam’s Iraq was Switzerland. We are all better off without it and him.

3)  Two Dozen Resolutions Disposed of En Masse. You have to admire the notions of time management practiced by the AFT. The delegates introduced 100 resolutions, spent hours debating a sentence here and a word there, fell way behind because of other business, then dealt with the problem by referring the last two dozen or so resolutions in one fell swoop to the AFT Executive Council, adjourning the convention at 12:40 p.m. on the final day.

It may have been abrupt, but was probably a smart move because today’s crowd was considerably smaller than yesterday’s, and delegates appeared to evaporate as the morning went on. A quorum call might have resulted in some interesting parliamentary maneuvers.

One resolution was approved on a subject that even the NEA has avoided. Delegates adopted Resolution 7, titled “Marriage Equality,” that directs AFT to “support policies and legislation that remove references to sex and gender as eligibility requirements for a civil marriage license, providing for equal access to marriage and all of its legal and economic privileges and obligations, to all consenting adult persons, regardless of sex, gender-identity, sexual orientation or affectional preference.”

4)  Convention Coverage Ends. This issue concludes EIA’s daily coverage of the teachers’ union conventions. The EIA Communiqué will resume its normal weekly schedule on Monday, July 26.

5)  Quote of the Day. “The United States has a well-known teacher shortage.” – American Federation of Teachers President Edward McElroy. Someone once said that the problem is not what we don’t know, but what we think we know that isn’t true.


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