Teachers union adds voice to national discussion

The American Federation of Teachers stretches all of its resources to get the word out about topics of interest to its members and the public - on a national and local level

The American Federation of Teachers stretches all of its resources to get the word out about topics of interest to its members and the public - on a national and local level

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), with more than 1.3 million members and 43 state affiliates, is one of the nation's most prominent teachers unions. And in today's political climate, that means it is a traditional labor organization and a public policy player.

Because of that, both internal and external communications - as well as lobbying duties - receive equal attention from the union. The AFT is made up of not only teachers, but also paraprofessional school employees (janitors, bus drivers, etc.), government employees, higher-education faculty and staff, and healthcare workers. Each group must be addressed individually - in fact, the union publishes a separate magazine for each division of its membership - while all of their interests are simultaneously melded into a coherent whole so the AFT can present a unified face.

The man in charge of getting the group's message out is Alex Wohl, current AFT director of public affairs and former communications director at the US Department of Education during the Clinton administration. He supervises the 15-person external communications department (a separate team of 10 handles national internal communications) and says that he is still stretched thin trying to satisfy the diverse needs of the union.

"We run the gamut on issues relating to our members' interest and, of course, the national interest," Wohl says.

Last month, the AFT launched its most ambitious publicity campaign of the year, aimed at reforming the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The first phase of the campaign, which just wrapped up, included national print and radio ads, as well as a media push to raise awareness of both the union's criticisms of the law and its proposed solutions. In the fall, it will launch another stage of the campaign, focusing on different parts of the law. "It's part of an effort to have our members be activated, and get involved and approach their congressional representatives," says Wohl.

The union movement is based on solidarity, and the AFT fulfills that part of its mandate through its affiliation with the AFL-CIO, the nation's largest labor group. The AFT coordinates with its parent group on issues of shared national importance, like the current battle over the future of Social Security.

One company that the union movement has established as a target for its particularly harsh wrath is Wal-Mart. A new union campaign entitled "Wake Up, Wal-Mart" is working hard to spread information criticizing the retailer's business practices, and the AFT has thrown its hat in the ring on the issue. While no direct link between Wal-Mart and the self-interest of educators might be immediately apparent, Wohl says that the AFL-CIO-driven campaign is pertinent to all of its members. In fact, Wohl says, the AFT did its own study that indicates that "Wal-Mart has a negative effect on things like education by destroying the tax base" through corporate tax breaks and the elimination of existing jobs.

"We have a very strong interest in joining this campaign," says Wohl. "The whole point of unions is to give all workers a fair shake."

Quality communications

The union's robust in-house staff means that the AFT doesn't work with any outside PR firms (although it does outsource some media buying and design duties for large efforts like the one on NCLB). Instead, it has an entire organization-within-an-organization dedicated to honing the communication skills of its own writers, editors, and PR pros.

The AFT Communication Association (AFTCA), which turns 50 this year, is a subgroup of the main union, with its own constitution, annual convention, and officers. It serves as a resource center, commune, and self-help group for union communicators, with the stated aim of refining the quality of the dozens of AFT-related internal publications and helping all elements of the group's PR structure come together to assist each other from the inside.

"A lot of our local unions and state organizations have people whose job it is - it could be a paid professional or it could be all the way down to a volunteer - to produce newsletters, work on websites, do TV shows, and whatever," explains Leo Canty, the current president of the AFTCA and a union communications pro for three decades. "Those communicators, we are kind of like the professional organization for their community of interest, in terms of helping them learn new skills,[supplying] them with resources and backing, and sharing ... ideas."

Canty says that almost 800 local affiliates are represented in the AFTCA at any given time, which gives a sense of the enormous variety of publications that the group turns out on a grassroots level. That proliferation of tomes - ranging from slick glossies to mimeographed one-pagers - is consciously encouraged by the union as a way to keep members engaged, making the local publication perhaps the most important internal communications tool in the group's arsenal.

"All of our polling shows that the closer to home you get with the discussion and the framing of issues, the more effective it is. We have higher readership amongst local members on the local publication," says Canty. "We encourage and we really do try to get people to spend the time to find ways to communicate with their members."

The fact that the AFT has a higher percentage of college-educated professionals than many other unions might partly account for its members' predilection to reading. But Canty modestly asserts that the union's communications structure "leads the pack" when it comes to spreading the word to the rank and file. In the union world, that means that members are more likely to understand and agree with the AFT's political recommendations, giving the entire group more clout with lawmakers because of its ability to mobilize its forces effectively on key issues.

Pitching in

Gail Purkey, VP of the AFTCA and director of communications for the Illinois Federation of Teachers, a state affiliate of the AFT, says teachers are adept at picking up the slack when it comes to communications duties. When even the national organization and many of its larger state affiliates' own in-house communicators are stretched thin, volunteerism and creativity are crucial to maintaining open lines of dialogue with smaller union blocs that can't afford paid help. In the Connecticut branch, where Canty is a VP, the communications team even runs a podcast and a weekly commercial TV show discussing state education issues to broaden the union's reach.

"The need is always so much greater than the time you have and the staff you have available," says Purkey, who leads a staff of three at her 90,000-member organization. "[But] you don't know the words 'stretched thin' until you try to teach full time and do union work. So that's why I believe it's so important for us ... to try to provide support."

Despite having, by all accounts, an overworked communications staff, the AFT manages to split its time efficiently between publicizing policy reports and handling media relations. Dale Mezzacappa, education writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer, says that her local branch of the union hired a PR pro to ensure that reporters had access to the group's leadership. On the national level, Mezzacappa says, "They are efficient and have a lot of experts in different areas, so they're pretty good at getting you the people you need."

Last year, Rod Paige, Bush's past secretary of education, famously referred to a teacher's union as a "terrorist organization." Wohl says that reputation is unearned, and he must work to counter it. "That's something I have always been perplexed by," he says. "[Teachers] put so much of their time and their heart and their soul into their jobs. ... Almost everyone can cite a great experience they've had with a teacher."

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PR contacts

Public affairs director Alex Wohl

Editor, 'American Teacher' magazine (AFT national publication) Roger Glass

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