August 13, 2006

The AFT and organizational politics

There's been various bits of commentary (e.g., Andrew Rotherham on Mike Antonucci's analysis and filtered excerpts of a consultant report that focused on AFT headquarters staff. The most (potentially) explosive comment quoted by Antonucci:

I have heard bold, outright lies told to large audiences.

That sounds awful, and Antonucci makes it appear as if the lies were told to large public audiences on matters of public policy. Because we don't have the context, I have no idea whether that refers to alleged lies told to the public, to AFT members, or to AFT staff. Nor do we know whether the alleged lies came from elected officers at the national level, from affiliate officers, or from staff. Nor the substance of the alleged lie. Given the context of the report (staff issues and the communications structure at AFT), it's rather ambiguous. I just don't know how to read it.

Then there's a small bit that comes where Antonucci discusses the political endorsement process: "AFT orchestrates what gets done," says one staffer, allegedly. I've heard that allegation before, and an allegation that Al Shanker would retaliate against convention members who voted against leadership positions, because delegate votes are open. The NEA operates differently, with a secret ballot on constitutional changes and officer elections. I'm not sure there's an easy solution. On the one hand, secret ballots protect against retaliation. On the other hand, secret ballots for delegates prevent the delegates from being accountable to the members who elect them.

In the end, I suspect the most pointed and relevant criticism were leveled against the AFT website and American Teacher, the AFT's magazine for teachers. It's certainly true that the web site is a mess, but that's all too common for large organizations that don't depend on sales (and often enough for those that do!). I suspect only a few AFT staffers have heard of Jakob Nielsen and usability issues. The magazine is an interesting question—Antonucci focuses on the relationship between the magazine and political issues (i.e., how often John Kerry appeared on the cover). Me, I'm a little puzzled at how frequently E.D. Hirsch is quoted in it. The combination, though, makes the magazine dated in terms of its role: political and posturing. It's as if the ghost of Al Shanker hangs over the editorial offices and directs decisions. But that doesn't really say anything about communications in AFT overall.

Is Antonucci's discussion of an internal report embarrassing for the AFT? I don't think so. No one would be surprised if released confidential conversations with staff at other organizations revealed how they did (or didn't) engage in outreach with the press, tried to feed stories to the media, etc. No one should be surprised that McElroy is looked on kindly by staff (something I've heard from the in-house staff as well). Or that he's not as media-savvy as Shanker or Feldman were. The out-of-context quotations are sometimes hard to puzzle out in terms of specifics, and so while I expect there may be some interesting conversations between affiliate officials and McElroy about this, the release won't matter much in the long run. Either the elected leadership takes the advice of the consultant or they don't.

Update (8/14): Thanks to MicheleatAFT for the spelling correction, and Antonucci points out the problems of adding context, which certainly makes sense in terms of an interviewing context or Antonucci not wanting to put identifiable information in what he wrote. The lack of context just makes some of the comments' implications difficult to infer.

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Posted in Education policy on August 13, 2006 11:09 AM |