This past week, my union, the National Education Association of Rhode Island, endorsed Gina Raimondo for governor. I cannot think of a more stupid decision my union could make.
Teachers and state workers know Raimondo as the person who stole our pensions. Retirees haven’t seen a COLA in six years because of her. You don’t have to take my word for it; other people noticed it as well.
I have also frequently, constantly, on my days off, objected to the union endorsing Democrats—or for that matter, just plain bad candidates, as they have almost always done. But this one takes the cake. No politician alive has done more to screw teachers in Rhode Island than Gina, and now our union does this.
What is even more frustrating about it is precisely that it happens in the context of the recent Janus decision by the Supreme Court, according to which public sector unions can no longer collect agency fees from non-members. It does not mean that we are in a right-to-work situation nationally, nor that collective bargaining is completely undermined. What it does do is to open the door to union members leaving their unions to save their dues money, which could have the impact—if a bargaining unit’s union membership falls below 50% of the workers covered in the contract—of decertifying unions. And even if it does not lead to mass de-unionization, it will definitely have an impact on the finances of the union bureaucracies throughout the public sector.
Janus was wrong to line up with right-wing anti-union interests, shadowy but well-funded organizations that intend to use the decision to undermine public sector unions. But he was not wrong that our unions use our dues money to support Democrats—and if it’s not directly through contributions to those politicians’ campaigns, it’s through endorsements like this one, which could not be made if our union did not exist in the first place. These politicians have repeatedly screwed us—and none more so than Gina. Our union leaders are siding with our enemy against another enemy. So how am I supposed to convince co-workers who want to leave the union that they should stay? The union just did AGAIN what they did not want in the first place!
So why now? After all, NEARI did not endorse her in the primary, nor did it endorse her competitor. What does NEARI have to gain form endorsing Gina Raimondo? The following is my conjectural explanation, based on a few factors. For one, our union has always felt that it needed to have a “place at the table”. This is ALWAYS part of the rationale for endorsing candidates, even bad ones, if NEARI thinks they have a chance of winning.
This may also be why they made no endorsement in the lead-up to the primary: it’s clear that Gina is a rising star in the national Democratic Party, a “new hope” of the Clinton wing of the party and a counterweight to the Bernie-DSA types that have been making gains in a number of places. I think NEARI did not want to upset Gina with an endorsement of her competitor then, and they want to endorse her now as part of what they see as an investment in a future star politician. It is also possible that they got blowback from their stance in 2016, when they were part of a dissident minority of state NEA affiliates that refused to endorse Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary. It should be noted that NEA national president Lily Eskelsen Garcia was a superdelegate for Hillary at the DNC.
Another factor in all of this is that other unions—notably the building trades union and Teamsters Local 251—endorsed Gina enthusiastically in the primary, and are still in her corner now. She is, after all, the “good” Democrat facing that nasty, anti-union Republican Alan Fung. The union support for Gina is based partly on lesser-evilism, partly on fear that Fung would go full bore after the unions, and partly on patronage—this is clearly the case for the building trades, given the money Gina has put into infrastructure and construction. I think all of these are factors in NEARI’s decision—they even cite the school building and renovation initiative as part of their support. Beyond that, I think they are afraid to call out other unions for bad political positions, and afraid to stand on their own lest they become pariahs at the State House. That said, the counter-example of the RIFT—which has not endorsed anyone for governor and is not likely to do so—gives the lie to the notion that NEARI has to endorse Raimondo for these reasons.
What is so confounding about this situation is that while NEARI appears to be desperate to appease people and organizations that have harmed or undercut teachers, they also seem to be oddly indifferent to their most important allies—their own members. This is what most terrifies me personally about this decision: if Janus opened the barn door for union members to leave their unions, NEARI appears to be shooing the horses out to pasture! It is as though they were hoping to give the anti-union campaigners an opening to swoop in and get more union members to leave.
That is why I think we must force our union to ENDORSE NO ONE. In general, it never does us any good to endorse candidates. It sends them the message that we’re in their back pocket, and once elected, they are likely not to face criticism from us. If anything, the Democratic Party in Rhode Island is a patronage system, not a political party; an endorsement is a request for patronage, and our continued silence even as we get attacked by the politicians we endorse is the price for continued (perceived) patronage. On the other hand, if we endorse no one, we maintain our independence, our ability to fight for our own interests, and our ability to mobilize our members in protests and job actions, including strikes. When workers mobilize and fight for their interests directly, we shape public opinion directly through our action, a far more powerful lever than words to the press or lobbying politicians.
I feel quite certain that those of us who reject this nomination and call it out publicly will face harsh criticism from our union leadership. We will be accused of splitting the union, of opening up the union to those outside anti-union forces trying to whittle away our membership, of undermining the effort to stop Rhode Island from becoming a right-to-work state. In fact, the opposite is true: those of us who doggedly stay in the union and voice our opposition are preparing the way for a more militant union in the future, one where the rank-and-file has more direct control of the union’s political activity and where our independence from politicians—who are essentially our bosses in the public sector—is jealously guarded and maintained. That is why we must rally as many members as we can to push back against the NEARI endorsement of Gina Raimondo.