During all the years I was a member of the National Education Association I had what might be called a somewhat mixed relationship with both the state and local leadership of the union.
It must have been confusing for all involved.
Former Illinois Education Association president Bob Haisman frequently declared that I was anti-union because I often was critical of the those at the top.
On the other hand my right-wing trolls are convinced I am a Clinton/Sanders/collectivist/unionist/bolshevik/Stalinist.
They all are wrong.
Life is more nuanced than either of those conclusions.
Like unions of all types, whether representing private sector or public sector workers, the lives of the leadership is very different from that of the rank-and-file membership. Can a union president who makes hundreds of thousands of dollars recall the urgency and the day-to-day life of an urban public school teacher who struggles each day with no support. Or that of a down state teacher in a classroom who may top off at $50,000 a year after 30 years on the job?
This is true even for those leaders who started as teachers, began on the shop floor or on the assembly line years ago.
I was both a loyal supporter of my union, a cheer leader for leadership when they fought for the rank-and-file, but also critic when their distance from the classroom and the school house made it too easy for them to concede too much.
A yearly delegate to the state’s union convention, I was frequently seen as a thorn in the side of the leadership.
As an elected delegate from my local I would rise to ask questions that the leadership often treated with scorn.
One year I rose to challenge the union’s executive director for our support for a new state teacher evaluation system, one which she played a role in writing.
Ken Swanson, the IEA President at the time, simply would not call on me. He claimed he did not see me at the mic. That night I went home, stopping at Target first, to buy the brightest orange sweater I could find.
I refused to be invisible.
Yet there were other times.
On two occasions when I attended the national conventions of the NEA I made it a point to work with the leadership to advance specific proposals and find common ground. In 2012 they supported my motion of support for the Chicago Teachers Union, an affiliate of the other national teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers.
Another year they backed me when I challenged the national union to oppose public displays of the Confederacy. This was in 2015 after the murders of nine members of the AME church in Charleston.
Following the longest debate in NEA Representative Association history my motion was watered down and finally passed. But my state leadership was steadfast in their support of my (and then our) propsal, and allowed me to be the spokesman for the motion on their behalf.
I write frequently about the problems at the top of our teacher union. Navigating the problems requires careful thought and good tactics.
Two things I’ve learned;
While speaking out means sometimes speaking out alone, we never win anything without winning over the members.
That takes patience.
Another lesson is that there is nothing wrong with our unions that the current attack on them by the corporations and the government will fix.
The current Janus case now before the U.S. Supreme Court, which is aimed at taking away agency fees and therefore union representation, is a prime example.
On this issue, there is no top or bottom within our unions.
On the other hand, if the Court rules against us, how the leadership of the unions respond might very well cause a lively conversation.