The Nation's Pulse

The NEA Strikes Back

Adopting confrontational tactics out of sheer desperation, and not only in Wisconsin.

By 4.11.11

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Last week's Wisconsin supreme court election still remains too close to call. Depending on the results of the recount -- and whether current justice David Prosser maintains his slim lead over assistant attorney general JoAnne Kloppenburg -- Gov. Scott Walker's successful ban on collective bargaining could either pass muster with the high court or be ruled unconstitutional.

Either way, it is a preview of the National Education Association's rhetorical and political strategy for battling with both the nation's school reform movement and fiscal conservatives inside the nation's statehouses -- especially those in the Midwest, where the majority of the country's largest teachers union's rank-and-file members reside -- over the future of America's woeful public schools. Declared the union's recently installed executive director, John Stocks, in February: "We are at war."

With the NEA having lost battles in Wisconsin, Ohio and Idaho to defend its ability to force school districts to the bargaining table, it is pushing to oust politicians who either opposed their wishes or may sustain efforts to abolish collective bargaining. The union's Wisconsin affiliate -- which captured the nation's attention in February and March with protests over Walker's anti-collective bargaining effort -- has since joined with other public sector unions in efforts to oust Prosser and push for the recall of three of the Republican state senators who helped pass the law.

The NEA is also looking to bolster its hefty political war chest. In February, the NEA announced plans to enact a two-fold increase in the member dues dedicated to political campaigning. The $10 a member increase will add another $40 million to the union's war chest, easily boosting its position as the biggest donors in American politics. Its state affiliates -- some of which are mounting referendums against bans on collective bargaining -- will likely do the same: In Ohio, for instance, the NEA state affiliate is looking to charge members an additional $50 in one-time dues to help finance its effort to pass a referendum to overturn the state's recently passed collective bargaining ban.

Meanwhile the NEA and its affiliates are also adapting the kind of militant unionizing tactics that made the rival AFT legendary -- and helped make teaching the most-lucrative profession in the public sector. In Michigan, the NEA affiliate is asking rank-and-file members to join in what it calls "crisis activities" -- essentially strikes and work stoppages -- in order to protest budget cuts and a new state law that allows school districts taken over by the state (including Detroit's abysmal public schools) to void their teacher contracts. This comes after months of protests by teachers unions filled state capitals throughout the Midwest.

The NEA is helping out protesters -- and encouraging even more strikes and rallies -- with the help of its $40 million (assets) foundation arm. Through the philanthropy, the union is forming something called the 51 Fund, which ostensibly aims to "help feed volunteers, organize rallies, and get the message out to people everywhere that the right to collective bargaining ensures a strong middle-class." It is also using the World Wide Web -- including its Education Votes site -- to bypass traditional media and mobilize rank-and-file members along with those few left-leaners still hostile to vouchers, charter schools, standardized testing, and the other formulas touted by school reformers.

Given that the NEA has spent more than $248 million in the past decade on political campaigns and referendums, this activism isn't exactly surprising. But the militancy most certainly is.

Unlike the rival AFT -- whose hardball tactics and crippling labor strikes during the 1960s helped foster the oft-servile relationship between teachers unions and school districts (as well as transformed public sector unionism) -- the NEA has never been at the forefront of labor activism.

For most of its 154-year-history, the union (which also considers itself a professional association) using its ties to university schools of education and other education establishment players to influence education policy. For example, the NEA ladled out $1.9 million to the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (which certifies ed schools) between the 2005-2006 and 2009-2010 fiscal years.

Even as the NEA became a bigger player in state and federal elections -- and, along with the AFT, the leading players in Democratic Party politics -- it eschewed the kind of militancy embraced by fellow public sector unions. It didn't have to. The NEA's vast war chests, armies of rank-and-file workers lobbying on its behalf, and working relationships with suburban school districts helped the union strike deals with state legislatures that ensured that teaching would be the best-compensated public-sector profession and restricted the advance of reforms.

The fact that most of the NEA's membership is based in Rust Belt and smaller Southern states -- largely away from the big-city districts whose dropout factories have made them hotbeds for reform -- also insulated the union from the kind of hostile battles that have forced the AFT into bitter compromises and concessions. So its leaders ignored warnings from media consultants such as the Kamber Group, which in a 1997 report declared: "There is a war going on over public education and NEA is still in a business-as-usual mode."

But with states facing $1.4 trillion in pension deficits and unfunded retired teacher healthcare costs -- just as they wrangle with $175 billion in budget shortfalls over the next three fiscal years -- the NEA can count even less on unquestioned support from state legislatures. This is especially true in Rust Belt bellwethers Wisconsin and Ohio, where newly elected Republican governors and legislatures must reckon with the combination of the recently-ended recession, decades of feckless spending, and teacher pension and healthcare deficits of at least $47 billion (depending on how much the Badger State's actuarial assumptions understate its liabilities). The fact that these and other NEA-dominated states also struggle with low graduation rates and woeful schools -- also helps to put expensive teacher compensation under the microscope.

At the same time, President Barack Obama's Race to the Top effort -- which coaxed longstanding bastions for teachers unions such as California to expand school choice and end bans on the use of student test score data in evaluating teacher performance -- has also emboldened school reformers to push for further gains. In Tennessee, the NEA affiliate couldn't stop the state legislature from passing a law that effectively ends near-lifetime employment for teachers and subjects them to stricter performance management. School voucher measures are under serious consideration in NEA strongholds such as Pennsylvania and Indiana. The fact that some of the NEA's key locals are either in insolvency or, as even in the case of the Wisconsin affiliate, battling over whether they should embrace some school reform measures and break up school districts, also saps the union of strength.

But with the threat of a weakened grasp on influence at the state level (and having lost significant influence over education policy at the federal level), the NEA is calling upon old-school unionism -- and even the legacy of the civil rights movement -- to rally support. On April 1, just before the NEA teamed up with other public unions for a mass demonstration on the 43rd anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel dared to invoke the civil rights leader's fight for equal pay for black city workers. Wrote Van Roekel in the Memphis Commercial Appeal: "[King] knew that unions -- including public unions like the Memphis sanitation workers -- were a critical part of that struggle."

But considering that school reformers now call education the greatest civil rights issue of this era -- and that taxpayers realize they are funding lavish retirements for teachers and other public sector workers at the expense of their own retirements and that of their kids -- Van Roekel and the NEA may need to realize they are on the wrong side of history. The very seniority-based privileges and collective bargaining rules the NEA and AFT have embraced have helped foster low-quality education for school children (especially those from poor white, black, and Latino households), a state of affairs no one but the unions' most diehard allies can still defend.

There is also the fact that younger teachers within the rank-and-file (who now make up the majority of all teachers in both the NEA and AFT) are embracing school reform. Seventy-five percent of Generation Y teachers said that they wanted performance-based pay as part of their compensation packages, according to a survey for the AFT released last week by the American Institutes for Research.

The NEA's empire has already struck out. If it isn't careful, it will soon not even exist.

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About the Author

RiShawn Biddle the editor of Dropout Nation , is co-author of A Byte at the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB EraHe can be followed at Twitter.com/dropoutnation.