Teachers for Bernie

Rank-and-file educators, not union officials, should decide who teachers unions support in 2020.


The year 2018 was supposed to be the end for organized labor. The ruling class’s second attempt to take away “fair share” fees from unions was successful. We had a stay of execution when the very timely death of ultra right-wing Justice Antonin Scalia halted the Friedrich case. However, the Supreme Court ruled the collection of these fees unconstitutional  —  taking away a dedicated revenue source for the struggling labor movement.

Despite this major setback, however, organized labor last year wrote a very different story  — one of teachers organizing outside their entrenched union bureaucracies to organize wildcat strikes that turned the nation’s attention towards the deplorable working and learning conditions in places like West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona.

We now need this rank-and-file energy to help build the campaign for the most popular politician in America and the only presidential candidate to stand for labor and public education unequivocally : Senator Bernie Sanders. Education workers like me  —  teachers, school paraprofessionals, clinicians  —  see students every day and see the immediate impact of bad public policies. Before we can even begin to teach our students content, they have to feel safe and comfortable in our schools. Deteriorating school conditions, lack of funding due to privatization schemes, family incarceration, deportations, and poverty preclude this. We are confronted daily with the negative impacts of austerity.

None of Sanders’s opponents have chosen the right side of history when it comes to combating these issues.

Kamala Harris, as a prosecutor, pushed for a policy that jailed parents when their children were truant. Ignoring the environmental factors that cause truancy, like poverty and lack of healthcare, Harris went straight to criminalization as a means of keeping kids in school. Her approach shows just how much she has bought into the logic of the “school-to-prison pipeline” — the use of the carceral system to keep students in line at school, and that ultimately prepares students for a life under the looming presence of mass incarceration.

Cory Booker, the patron saint of charter schools, was an early adopter of the cynical use of charter schools as a means to boost one’s political career. Charter schools have a history of pushing out the most vulnerable students to boost test scores and forcing public schools to close, and yet Booker remains a strong supporter of them — likely due to the fact that his wealthy donor base supports privatizing education.

In 2016, left-labor and progressive organizations —  ones with a robust process for members to be involved in choosing an endorsement — mostly sided with Senator Sanders. On the flipside, unions like the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) both relied on executive councils to make their endorsement decisions. This was despite the fact that Clinton never made a firm commitment to education, labeled our students “superpredators,” and once sat on the board of Walmart, a corporation owned by a family with strong ties to charter schools.

In 2020, we can’t allow this to happen again. Every union member should have the right and the opportunity to make their voices heard. And it’s not an infeasible demand — online polls would make this kind of democratic endorsement process fast and easy.

Teachers need to push their unions to support Bernie. This will require public education programs to show teachers how Bernie’s platform of Medicare for All, College for All, and Jobs for All will not only benefit our lives and the lives of our students but will also give us more power to fight our bosses on the shop floor. We can take a lesson from the red-state striking teachers on how to organize outside of the union bureaucracy. Once teachers build a strong, grassroots movement in support of Bernie, we can propose resolutions to our unions for his endorsement.

If the heads of the teachers unions decide to rig the endorsement in favor of the Democratic Party establishment again, teachers should form independent, grassroots campaigns for Sanders. And after this campaign, these groups could organize to push our leaders who routinely, and wrongly, follow the lead of the Democratic Party leadership rather than their members.

Many of us have started this work. Educators for Bernie is a nationwide network pushing for “one member, one vote” processes for presidential endorsements in our unions. If you are an AFT member, you can sign this petition today.

We can’t afford to sit this campaign out. Teachers, and especially DSA teachers, need to go all out in the fight to come to win a democratic endorsement process for presidential candidates and then to line our unions up behind Bernie.

Kenzo Shibata is a DSA activist who writes and teaches in Chicago. He's a founding member of the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators and president of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance in Illinois.