USF Faculty Association’s Dubious Affiliation

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stephen zunesStephen Zunes is a professor of politics and coordinates the Middle Eastern studies program.

One of the things that makes USF such a great place to go to college is that it attracts some of the best faculty in the country. Many of my colleagues left tenure-track positions–some at Ivy League universities and other prestigious institutions—in order to teach here. There are a number of reasons for this, including USF’s location, mission, diversity, and the decent faculty salaries and benefits available. The latter factor is due in large part to the efforts of our faculty union — the USF Faculty Association — and its outstanding leadership.

The USFFA is a member local of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which primarily represents primary, secondary and community college teachers. The USFFA is virtually the only member from a private university. A portion of faculty and librarian salaries pays for our union dues, a portion of which then goes to the AFT.

While there are some advantages about being part of a powerful AFL-CIO union, a number of us in the USSFA have been troubled by this affiliation as a result of a series of controversial political positions the AFT has taken on foreign policy, particularly during the previous decade when the AFT leadership pushed through a number of resolutions supporting the Bush administration’s policies in the Middle East.

For example, in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when strategic analysts like me were trying to convince the nation that—contrary to claims by the Bush administration—Iraq was no longer a threat, had already achieved at least qualitative disarmament, and was fully cooperating with UN inspectors, the AFT executive council issued a statement reiterating the Bush administration’s falsehoods that Iraq still had “weapons of mass destruction” and threatened U.S. national security. This was part of the union leadership’s apparent effort to boost the Bush administration’s case for war and to try to discredit UN inspectors and independent arms control experts challenging their lies.

Despite the fact that, as many of us predicted, no operational “weapons of mass destruction” were ever found, the union leadership to this day has never apologized to its members for misleading them.

After the invasion, when concerns over increasing U.S. casualties, widespread reports of torture and other human rights abuses by U.S. occupation troops, and a growth in anti-American extremism worldwide as a result led to calls to immediately bring the troops home, the union leadership pushed through a resolution at the 2004 AFT convention opposing such a withdrawal.

The AFT has also supported disastrous military campaigns by U.S. allies, such as Israel’s wars on Lebanon and on Gaza. While human rights groups, Israeli peace activists, and most of the international community have condemned both sides for attacking civilians, the AFT leadership pushed through a resolution at a recent convention unconditionally supporting the Israeli attacks, despite Israel’s right-wing government being condemned by Amnesty International and other reputable human rights groups for apparent war crimes in the deaths of many hundreds of Arab civilians.

The resolution included a series of neoconservative talking points, including a whole series of demonstrably false statements on issues ranging from the extent of Iranian and Syrian involvement, the history of Hezbollah and Hamas, the motivation behind Palestinian hostility towards Israel, and more. In response, I joined other AFT members in proposing a replacement resolution which, while condemning Hezbollah and Hamas and supporting Israel’s right to self-defense, would have corrected the false claims in the original resolution and criticized both sides for their violations of international humanitarian law. The executive council, however, has refused to even consider allowing a more balanced resolution.

More recently, AFT president Randi Weingarten, in an apparent effort to discredit popular and largely nonviolent movements in the Arab world against U.S.-backed dictators and occupation armies, tried to portray them and their supporters in their most extreme and violent manifestations by falsely claiming that the word “intifada” (Arabic for “shaking off”) actually means “rampant violence and bloodshed” and condemning those who supported these movements or challenged her definition.

Despite the irony of a community of scholars like the USF faculty affiliating with a union whose leadership is so willing to ignore empirical evidence if it contradicts with their pro-war ideology, there is no serious consideration underway for the USFFA to becoming affiliated with another union or becoming independent.

However, the USFFA Policy Board did recently send a letter to AFT president Weingarten which, while noting the diversity of viewpoints on international affairs among its members, emphasized that “we do believe it very important that—regardless of the positions taken—the statements taken in support of those positions be factually-accurate and based on empirical evidence.”

Furthermore, the USFFA requested that “the AFT leadership be more willing to consult with scholars from a variety of perspectives within the union’s ranks who are knowledgeable of the issues at hand to ensure that policy positions taken by the union are based on factual evidence.”

While this may seem like a quite reasonable request for a union that is supposed to represent teachers, it remains to be seen—given the AFT’s record—whether the union will be willing to actually do so.

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