NEA: Politics is more than voting.

Ed Week’s Stephen Sawchuk has written a lengthy review of some of the big issues confronting the NEA in the face of the assault by Republicans and many Democrats on public sector unions. It comes in the form of a report on last weeks Representative Assembly in Washington, DC.

Go all the way down to the last four paragraphs of the article to a discussion of a debate and vote on New Business Item 4.

It concerns the role of the Uniserv staff. These are the paid folks that work with elected local presidents and teacher region leaders. They mainly assist in bargaining and contract enforcement.

In the IEA at least, the Uniserv staff do a pretty good job at this.

But when it comes to mobilizing membership around political issues, local leaders are too often left on their own. And too much of what the NEA and IEA consider politics is GOTV stuff.

Uniserv staff and the frequently unpaid local leaders with little or no release time from teaching receive diddly in the way of political training.

That is the problem that NBI 4 was addressing.

Sawchuk says that because NBI was rejected by the RA, members want to keep things status quo.

Vermont Education Association member Steve Owens sees it differently.

It is worth noting that the Illinois caucus at the NEA RA voted support for NBI 4.

I can recall a few years back following a coalition action for education funding in the Illinois capital. The IEA could mobilize only several thousand members as part of an crowd of 8,000 from various parent, community and union organizations. Remember that the IEA has over 100,000 members state-wide.

At a follow up Springfield meeting I asked the question, “Why can’t the IEA do as good a job at political training as they do at collective bargaining training?”

It’s good to see others are asking the question now too.

5 Replies to “NEA: Politics is more than voting.”

  1. First of all, I am a total novice at political action, so go easy on me. As a latecomer to teaching (long break for child rearing), I have never had the protection of tenure, which generally means I have never had the protection of the union. In all the districts in which I have worked, nontenured teachers have had little to no union support. If you have to rely on the union, you know your job is done. It is not hard to tweak reviews toward the negative. Districts don’t need a reason to fire nontenured teachers, so we are an easy target. You have got to be crazy (or naive) to stick your neck out. No matter what your tenure status, don’t go unless all the union leadership does. From what I have seen, a teaching career depends on politics; usually on the politics of keeping quiet and under the radar.

    1. Cynthia,
      I promise to go easy on you. I have always advised non-tenured teachers to lay low for a while. For new teachers, just getting a handle on the classroom and teaching is work enough. And, of course, everything depends on local conditions, your principal, your district administration and board. And your union. It’s not the same everywhere and there is no blueprint.
      On the other hand, a tenured teacher in a district with an active union is the greatest protection for education, union and political activism one can ask for. I have published this blog for five years and it is has my name right across the top. As president of our local, elected four times, when a teacher would say, “But won’t I get in trouble?” I would answer, “We don’t get in trouble, we make trouble.”
      Step one is making sure your local is one that has leadership that will ensure it is an active one. Maybe that leader will be you?

  2. Not likely. I will never achieve tenure and probably will not teach again although not by choice. At 62 I am far from a prime candidate.

  3. Hey Fred, I am totally down with the concept of freeing Uniserv resources for political action. My worry is that Uniserv works hard instead of smart. If we can get that piece straight, we would have capacity to consider how to build a union that gets it done. Thanks for the balanced reporting!

  4. At least in the Maine Education Association up to 2 years ago (when I resigned/retired as a UD), political action was spoken about as being very, very, VERY important but little was done to actually move an agenda – pick an agenda, any agenda – forward.

    The reality was that only a few select people at headquarters were privy to political decisions; UniServ staff and members would only read about those decisions (more often non-decisions disguised as affirmative actions) in the newspapers several days or weeks later because some reporter figured she’d call the “teachers’ union” for an opinion on something.

    Issues identified as critical by the field staff (and, therefore, members) and the Representative Assembly were ignored in favor of big-ticket items the Executive Director and President saw as “priority”. These were usually something that allowed them to be part of some coalition opposed to something that might cut educational funding (but that brought in a bunch of NEA resources so MEA looked like a “player”.)

    The alleged legislative agenda was usually determined *after* the session was over. Again, UniServ staff and members would learn about what bills had been testified about, pro or con, some time in May or June.

    It’s darned hard – as either a UD or member – to get involved in something as uncomfortable as political action when the only thing the union truly wants from you is silence.

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