NEA Ignores Members’ Views; Some Unaware of Membership

Although the news in unprecedented, and their power allows them almost complete control over most teachers, a recent survey shows NEA teacher union officials are out of touch with their members’ needs and wishes.  But what does one expect when so many teachers are forced into, and forced to pay for representation they neither want not asked for?  Mike Antonucci has the story in Education Intelligence Agency.

In the wake of persistent membership losses, the National Education Association began a review of its organizational structure in an effort to improve efficiency and cut costs. Part of the project included a survey of NEA’s board of directors, state affiliate officers, Representative Assembly delegates and rank-and-file members.

The survey response rate itself suggested a problem. Thirty-eight percent of those holding an elected position responded, but only 10 percent of the rank-and-file did so. Since part of the survey sought to gauge member involvement, NEA was not off to a roaring start.

Few members of each group said that the work of any level of the union’s governance structure was “relevant to their work as an educator.” Coupled with that was a desire for NEA to focus more on education issues and less on everything else. Even when education was the main topic, many at every level felt that the annual Representative Assembly (RA) and the board meetings did not spend enough time on business and spent too much time on ceremony.

The results of the governance review might result in less frequent RAs, or a smaller board of directors, or any number of other internal structural changes, but NEA’s greatest challenge is how (or whether) it deals with its relative irrelevance to the daily lives of its members.

To illustrate, the union asked the rank-and-file members whether they had contact with a union representative in the past year. Three-quarters had met at least once with a local building rep and 60 percent had contact with a local affiliate board member. But very few members had any contact whatsoever from a union rep above the local level.

More than 60 percent had zero contact with the state affiliate board, more than 70 percent had zero contact with an RA delegate, and more than 80 percent had zero contact with a member of the NEA board of directors.

The middle statistic is the most significant. There are anywhere from 7,000 to 9,000 delegates that attend the annual convention, and boast about being “the world’s largest democratic deliberative body.” In practical terms, the RA cannot be very democratic or deliberative if it never hears from three-quarters of its constituents.

But it is difficult to generate outrage on behalf of the rank-and-file, since they seem to be perfectly content – especially the younger members – with their lack of contact with NEA at any level. This is causing much consternation at NEA, but not much among young teachers.

The most involved NEA activists are much older than the rank-and-file members. When asked to explain why so few young members attend the RA, state affiliate leaders had remarkably similar answers:

In addition to these reasons, many affiliates noted that many older delegates go every year and don’t step aside for others to take their place – or, to be more accurate, to allow their funding to attend the RA to go to someone else. One state affiliate stated that the younger members “have little name recognition and are not likely to be elected if they run.”

Both supporters and opponents of the teachers’ unions should learn from this. Ordinary teachers and rank-and-file members should not be criticized for the actions of their union, nor should they be expected to defend those actions. Chances are they haven’t a clue what the union above the local level is up to. At the same time, the unions can’t use ordinary teachers and rank-and-file members as a shield against criticism of the union’s actions. Very little of NEA’s agenda was created by popular demand, or even created with popular knowledge.

What comes out of NEA headquarters is owned by the people inside that building. We should all keep that in mind when determining how to respond.