American Federation of Teachers convention: In service of American capitalism’s COVID-19 coverup, strike suppression, and war plans

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) concluded its biennial convention on July 17. The event, held in Boston, was characterized by a cover-up of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, support for US imperialism’s war against Russia, and an overall deepening of the union’s integration with the capitalist state. It serves as a warning of the role that the union will play in suppressing the working class as the crisis of capitalism intensifies.

Randi Weingarten, President of the AFT, set the tone for the event in her keynote address. Other “high profile” speakers expressed the close collaboration between the capitalist state and the teachers union. They included First Lady Jill Biden, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, Senator Elizabeth Warren, AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler. Their speeches revealed the nervousness of the union bureaucracy and Biden administration about containing the growing movement of the working class and confining it into a dead-end Democratic Party voting campaign.

The speakers list also included Amazon Labor Union President Chris Smalls, the new darling of the AFL-CIO, which has embraced him in an effort to shore up its waning credibility.

AFT President Randi Weingarten (left), First Lady Dr. Jill Biden and NEA President Becky Pringle at January 21 White House meeting. [Photo by FLOTUS]

The COVID-19 Pandemic

Weingarten acknowledged in her speech the unprecedented crisis facing educators and American democracy as a whole, citing the pandemic, the January 6 coup attempt, the war in Ukraine, and the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe V. Wade. She asked for a moment of silence “for those we have lost.” What took their lives and how many were lost, she did not say.

In fact, thousands of educators and school workers have died from COVID-19 since schools reopened in August 2020 according to an unofficial tracker. No official tally has been released by either the AFT or the other teacher’s union, the National Education Association (NEA), which also held its convention this month. Over 14 million children have been infected and at least 1,700 have died according to the CDC. The vast majority of infections and deaths occurred after September 2021, when children and educators were forced back into classrooms during the Delta and Omicron waves. This policy was demanded by the Biden administration and ruthlessly enforced by the AFT.

Whitewashing her own culpability in the deadly school reopening campaign, Weingarten said that during the pandemic “our members rolled up our sleeves to make in-person learning safe and welcoming. The AFT embarked on an unprecedented Back to School for All campaign last summer, giving $5 million in grants to 1,800 AFT affiliates serving some 20 million students.” 

It was Weingarten herself who boasted that she spent fifteen hours a day coercing educators and parents to return to unsafe classrooms. The AFT rank-and-file membership, meanwhile, waged a concerted struggle to keep schools, known to be central locations of viral transmission, remote.

Weingarten’s admission to visiting “150 work sites in the last 14 months” is telling. Throughout January and February, thousands of educators and students staged walkouts in dozens of cities. Many of these were wildcats, organized independently or in defiance of the unions. In places where the unions were forced to call a temporary strike, they immediately sought to stifle and sabotage the struggle of teachers. 

In Chicago, the AFT-affiliated Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), working closely with Weingarten and the Democratic administration of Mayor Lori Lightfoot, shut down a remote work action by 25,000 educators, who had halted in-person learning as the district faced record infection levels. The CTU shut down the job action before teachers even voted on an agreement negotiated with the district. The deal itself, which CTU President Jesse Sharkey claimed was the best they could get, did nothing to protect educators or students. 

Teachers in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood march against the unsafe reopening of Chicago Public Schools last year [Photo by @rcoppo1]

During her speech, Weingarten criticized “the extremists – the anti-public schools crowd, the anti-union crowd, the privatizers, the haters.” This begs the question, why did the AFT collaborate with these very extremists to promote school reopenings?

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