AFT REPORTS: Chicago played major role in the American Federation of Teachers convention in 2012

Although every seat inside the convention hall had an "Obama-Biden 2012" sign for the delegates and visitors and every delegate could have gone home with two "Obama Biden 2012" tee shirts as one souvenir of the 2012 AFT convention, a large number of delegates were less than enthusiastic for the Obama-Biden ticket. Only the Chicago delegation actively (but silently) protested, wearing Chicago Teachers Union red shirts and holding up "Stop Race To The Top" signs. CTU President Karen Lewis (above, right) was the only member of the AFT Executive Council who did not go on stage when called to do so by AFT President Randi Weingarten as Biden arrived on the stage, getting handshakes from the AFT vice presidents as he went to the podium to deliver a brilliant speech that failed to mention Arne Duncan or Race To The Top once. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.The New York delegations to the 2012 convention of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) might have stretch seemingly to infinity as the huge United Federation of Teachers (New York City) and New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) continued to have more than 1,000 of the nearly 3,000 convention delegates at their disposal, but the much smaller (fewer than the allotted 150 delegates) Chicago delegation had at least as much influence on the convention as anyone. The biggest reason was that Chicago has begun standing up to the corporate "school reform" bullies, and many of the other big city locals that built the AFT are still fighting a rear guard action without resorting to the strikes and strike threats that built the union's strongest locals and best contracts during the previous century.

There was an ironic reminder of that militancy as thousands of people lined up to get into the Sunday afternoon session, which would be punctuated by the Biden speech. By the final day of the convention of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the main news reports outside the convention told the story of the speech by Vice President Joe Biden and the warm reception Biden had received from most — far from all — of the more than 3,000 convention delegates and visitors. But inside the convention itself, the large impact of the relatively small Chicago delegation was still the talk of the town. Chicago's militancy — and threatened strike against former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who has been Chicago's mayor since May 2011 — was showing the way to the nearly dormant union towards a new militancy of the kind that had given birth to the union's major cities' locals during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

The day — in fact, much of the convention — had a Motown beat. But even as AFT President Randi Weingarten (who has never led a strike herself) asked the convention "What's your favorite Motown song?" some of the historical context and intensity had been lost — temporarily at least. But the reminders were everywhere.

A Motown tribute was being sung for the long lines of delegates waiting to get inside the convention on Sunday afternoon, July 29, before the speech to AFT by Vice President Joe Biden. The Motown medley reminded many veteran teachers that teachers on strike from New York, Detroit and Philadelphia to Chicago and points west often had a Motown song as a theme song of the strikes that won the unions their best contracts. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.Those with long memories were reminded that each of the strikes of the major locals was somehow related to a Motwon theme song. What? Yes. As the delegates had lined up to pass through metal detectors on the way to the convention hall on July 29, 2012, the day the convention's business would be interrupted by the Biden speech, many older delegates were reminded of the history of union militancy in an unusual way. Outside the doors, while the lines stretch more than one city block waiting for the security to clear them, people were treated to Motown songs by a group of singer who showed the same energy that had once characterized most of the big locals of the union.

The Biden speech was meant to be a highlight of the convention, but it really wasn't. If there was one highlight, it came a half hour before the Biden speech, when the convention voted unanimously in favor of a resolution supporting militant locals — led by Chicago — under attack from corporate school reformers. The irony of that position, in context, is that Biden's former colleague, former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, is now leading the corporate school reformers' attack on the unions (especially the Chicago Teachers Union) and former Chicago schools Chief Executive Officer Arne Duncan is leading the attack on unions across the USA through his Race To The Top program.

A Chicago scent was in the air, but not at first noticeable by Substance reporters, the whole day of Biden.

Chicago media handlers, posing in a way as Secret Service, used the same ham bisted tactics with the corporate media reporters who showed up for the Biden speech as they generally did during meetings of the Chicago Board of Education.

Substance had at least three reporters covering the Biden speech and the protest at the time the brief screaming and that "banner" erupted at the back of the hall. David Stone caught up with the main facts of the story, I had just moved towards the back from photographing the Chicago delegation, and Kati Gilson had escaped the clutches of the Biden-Obama press handlers (who pretended to have the authority of Secret Service, but didn't!). As a result, we got to report, accurately, both protests, and they were in fact quite distinct. I am still trying to get someone to confirm for me if the "genocide" chant I heard in the back (briefly) was the same chant I had heard (at too great a length) 34 years earlier at an AFT convention in Boston. If I get that confirmation, I will report it.

But the big story of all that was that the Obama-Biden media handlers. There were dozens of them, the guys all wearing the same ties (tacky). They were playing one-on-one with the corporate reporters who had showed up for the Biden speech, but not the rest of the convention. The Obama-Biden kiddie korps (and some of them looked fresh out of high school) were frantically corralling the national TV and other reporters on the riser in the center of the hall, which forced you to photograph or video only what was happening on stage and on the big screen. So it would have been impossible for the national TV and radio reporters to get any other story during the convention (and Biden's speech) — unless they had broken free from the pen they were in and faced the rest of reality.

Biden on the big screen at the AFT convention in Detroit on July 29, 2012. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.One group that did was herded back to the proper perspective by one of the gauleiters from the Kiddie Korps. I didn't realize I should have photographed that little herding of sheep, since the realities and the stories were coming very fast.

So about a hundred feet behind the "reporters" who were forced to do their story from the riser, Chicago was sitting, and one member of the AFT Executive Council, Chicago's President Karen Lewis, was sitting with her delegation, and not on stage surrounding Biden. That was a story worth reporting.

At a time like that, our job as reporters and photographers is to go to the story, not to continue pointing in the opposite direction and being force fed a little bit of campaign propaganda as "news". I was very proud that we (Substance reporters; Chicago delegates who are also Substance reporters) were at the stories as they unfolded. Meanwhile, Joe Biden delivered that brilliant speech (and "brilliant" is the appropriate word, as anyone who wants to replay the speech can hear). So as Biden's speech unfolded, part of the context story was the Chicago protest.

Another part, then briefly the second protest and the chants that virtually nobody could hear. Another story that I only caught a tiny piece of was the reality of a kind of "Paid Supporter" phenomenon inside the AFT delegations.

A handful of protesters from the Progressive Labor Communist Party marched into the rear of the convention hall during the Biden speech and were quickly ushered out of the building without arrests. Although some of those in the PL protest were carrying the Chicago Teachers Union leaflets saying "Stop Race To The Top" no member of the Chicago delegation participated in the PL disruption. Some enemies of the CTU leadership tried to claim later that the yellow leaflets (above) "proved" that the CTU was behind the PL protests, but since more than 1,000 of the yellow leaflets had been distributed to delegates before the Biden speech, that claim was a ridiculous as the militancy supposedly displayed by the protesters who marched briefly and chanted at the back of the hall, as they have done at AFT conventions for about 40 years. Above, the small group was photographed by Substance when they were outside the convention hall. Substance photo by Susan Zupan.The vast majority of AFT convention delegates (my count in the line was about three-quarters) were wearing those blue Obama Biden 2012 tee shirts — true. They were virtually the only free convention souvenirs people were getting; AFT told the press corps there was no convention tote bag this year — austerity and all that. But those blue tee shirts were available everywhere to everyone.

The question was: Are the people wearing those blue Obama Biden tee shirts really as enthusiastic for Obama Biden as you'd think at first glance? Especially if you say the magic words "Arne Duncan" or "Race To The Top"?

Many of the people wearing the Obama-Biden Blue were as skeptical as the people wearing Chicago red of the Obama-Biden record on education. The stage management, including both Randi's remarks and Biden's speech, were very good. To listen to both, you'd think it was 2008 and we were facing Race To The Top and George W. Bush.


and this is huge: Had Arne Duncan's name been mentioned (I don't think anyone from the stage uttered either "Arne Duncan" or "Race to the Top" the entire time), the boos would have been much louder than the brief boos when Biden said "Romney" and then used the small amount of booing to do a great rhetoritician's job telling the crowd, in that soothing voice, that it's not personal and returning to the family lines he was repeating ("Michelle, Barack, Jill and I..." over and over) and the keystone ("This is not your grandfather's Republican party..."). The brief protest in the back was not the only thing that gave me flashbacks.

The other came at the beginning.

When Biden took the stage, the chants were "Four more years!"

I remarked to those around me at the press table (not in the press prison on the riser) that that chant had been used first in my memory by the last New Deal President decades ago.

"Lyndon Johnson?

"No. 'Four more years!' thundered out across the land in 1972 for the re-election of Nixon-Agnew. And if you look at the policies and not the personalities, Nixon was the last New Deal president. As Biden says, this is a very different Republican Part."

What most people want to ignore is that this is also a very different Democratic Party.


August 3, 2012 at 9:02 AM

By: Anthony Smith

This is not your father's Democratic Party, that's for sure...

You are correct George, this is not the Democratic Party that I grew up with. I am ashamed of them. They claim to care about the middle class while they work diligently to destroy that same middle class!

Corporate greed unchecked and unregulated and when it is regulated it is not enforced!

Corporate take overs of the Public School system in America to ensure themselves a steady loyal (AND THOROUGHLY INDOCTRINATED) class of automatons (NO CRITICAL THINKING NEEDED!) who will do their bidding, as they have been taught in their school system and who will be loyal, "yes boss", employees who will know enough to get the job done but will not question authority!

Welcome to the New United States of Corporate America, sponsored by China, (we aren't really a totalitarian communist regime, really)!

They control the media, for the most part, the jobs, for the most part, the housing market, the... well you get the picture.

August 28, 2012 at 10:50 AM

By: William Noonan

This is not your father's Democratic Party

Is a new book dedicated to this very subject!

Add your own comment (all fields are necessary)

Substance readers:

You must give your first name and last name under "Name" when you post a comment at We are not operating a blog and do not allow anonymous or pseudonymous comments. Our readers deserve to know who is commenting, just as they deserve to know the source of our news reports and analysis.

Please respect this, and also provide us with an accurate e-mail address.

Thank you,

The Editors of Substance

Your Name

Your Email

What's your comment about?

Your Comment

Please answer this to prove you're not a robot:

2 + 5 =