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AFT loses few members and spends big on politics, but is its Pennsylvania union in trouble?

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In the last few weeks, the American Federation of Teachers and its Pennsylvania affiliate released their 2019 financial reports. The major labor unions are getting lots of scrutiny this year because groups that track union issues (like Free to Teach) want to understand the impact of Janus v. AFSCME on membership.

AFT’s national organization saw a modest decline of 1,777 paying members in the last year. The union represents nearly 1.7 million educators and workers across the United States. AFT-PA has over 26,000 members statewide, which include the state’s largest school districts of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. In contrast to the national union, it saw an increase of 492 members in the last year.

As the numbers above show, far from being a death knell for unions, Janus has simply corrected an injustice by allowing non-member educators a choice in whether or not to support a union. We know from interacting with teachers that many appreciate the representation of their local unions in particular.

That would be a sensible reading of the data. AFT President Randi Weingarten, however, has hurried straight for the hyperbole. In January she boasted: “It’s heartening that working people have seen straight through these right-wing groups’ brazen attempts to destroy our union and other public sector unions. In fact, our union is growing. Since Janus, we’ve had 11 organizing wins. Union members have sent a clear message: We are sticking with the union.”

Weingarten then claimed that AFT had added a jaw-dropping 88,500 members since the Janus ruling. Now we know it’s a fantastical claim backed by zero evidence—least of all the union’s own federally mandated reporting. 

AFT clearly did not succeed in persuading even a tenth of its 83,000 fee payers to become full union members. And it continues to engage in the type of hyper-partisan posturing that turns off such educators, such as pouring $41 million into political activities and lobbying in the last year. That figure included spending dues dollars collected from teachers across the nation to fund:

In the meantime, AFT-PA’s additional few hundred members won’t be enough to offset a decade of declining membership. According to its annual “LM-2” financial reports, membership fell 15 percent (or nearly 4,500 members) in the 10 years from 2009 to 2018 even before the Janus ruling.

In fact, it looks like national AFT headquarters provided a hefty $1.9 million loan to the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (the state’s largest local) in 2016, which the local appears to be gradually paying off. 

So while things look mostly steady for AFT nationally, the picture for AFT-PA (and perhaps other state affiliates) isn’t so rosy. In the midst of yet another polarizing teacher walkout in Chicago, that may be because the corporate union hasn’t proved its worth to enough new educators in a long time.

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