Labor, Democracy & the Common Good
College professors and secondary school teachers nationally are joining forces in hopes of gaining more decision-making power in public education–but it’s not clear how that will play out for Georgia educators due to restrictive state laws that bar them from collective bargaining and strikes.
The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has affiliated with one of the nation’s largest education unions, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) to combine AAUP’s higher-education expertise with AFT’s greater organizing power. By doing so, they hope to gain more leverage in shaping legislation affecting public schools and colleges and increase decision-making power for the teachers they represent at all levels.
This partnership could be especially beneficial to public educators in Georgia. While the state has AAUP and AFT chapters, they function more as professional associations than unions, because members are legally prohibited from collectively bargaining with their employers for a mutually agreed-upon contract–and from striking if they can’t reach a deal.
Without that leverage, educators in Georgia need to rally public and political support to get what they want.
“In many ways, it’s a matter of political capital,” said Georgia AAUP President Matthew Boedy. “It’s a question of whether state legislators recognize that we have leverage.”
But the Georgia AAUP lacks the experienced organizers to create structure around protest and activism, said Boedy, who became its leader in 2021. He believes the AFT, which is the second-largest teachers’ union in the country, has the size and dedicated staff necessary to craft the organizing foundation the AAUP needs, both in Georgia and nationally.
Together, the two organizations will represent more than 300,000 faculty members nationally, with about 45,000 from the AAUP and the rest from the 270,000 higher education employees among the AFT’s 1.7 million total members.
Under the alliance, which took effect Aug. 1, the AAUP maintains its autonomy but becomes a national council of the AFT with regional hubs, according to an AAUP FAQ.
The Georgia AAUP has recently clashed with the Board of Regents, which oversees the University System of Georgia, over its decisions to rescind mask mandates, weaken tenure, and appoint Sonny Perdue as the USG’s chancellor.
The tenure changes, which the Board of Regents adopted in October 2021, make it far easier to fire tenured professors in the Georgia university system, which weakens their independence, along with their power to oppose changes that affect them.
In response, the national AAUP formally censured Georgia’s Board of Regents, saying: “[The Board of Regents’] removal of protections for academic freedom will have a devastating effect on the quality of education in the USG system.” However, even though the censure carries weight in academia, it has no legal power.
Professors and K-12 teachers also have voiced concerns around the new ”divisive concepts” law, passed in the spring, which restricts educators from teaching certain topics related to race and ethnicity in ways that remain unclear.
In all of these scenarios, the Georgia AAUP has made little to no headway in changing the course of the Board of Regents and lawmakers.
Boedy and other AAUP members hope that the affiliation with AFT will mean more negotiating power with state school systems, including the Board of Regents, and more follow-up strategy around mobilization.
“We had thousands of people protesting the removal of the mask mandates during COVID-19,” said Boedy. “But after the protests, we had no idea how to follow up. We didn’t have the organization to turn it all into real change.”
The AFT could also help Georgia educators lobby lawmakers statewide and in Congress or with federal agencies like the Department of Education.
“Working together, we will be much better equipped to take on the challenges facing higher education—anti-intellectual attacks on the teaching of history, legislative intrusion into the academy, disinvestment and chronic underfunding of public higher education, and the resulting casualization of academic workers,” said AAUP president Irene Mulvey in a joint statement with AFT president Randi Weingarten after the two groups voted to affiliate on June 18.
In states where educators can form a traditional union, the benefits of the partnership are clear. K-12 teachers and professors create a single educator’s block with greater power for collective labor actions like strikes.
But in Georgia, the benefits of the affiliation won’t materialize unless the AFT puts considerable resources into building a structure for organizing, mobilization, lobbying, and activism in the state, Boedy, the state AAUP president said. The AFT did not respond to Atlanta Civic Circle’s questions for this story.
Boedy hopes that’s coming, but he has yet to speak to his Georgia AFT counterpart, Verdaillia Turner. “We’ve been reactive in the past rather than being proactive in the form of unionizing,” he said.