“We Are at War” – NEA’s Plan of Attack
posted at 2:27 pm on March 22, 2011 by Mike Antonucci
With the situation in Wisconsin stabilized, if not settled, there is time to examine the National Education Association’s strategy for its short-term future. Though reasonable arguments can be made that the collective bargaining measures in Wisconsin, Ohio and Idaho aren’t significantly different from the status quo in other states, there should be no mistake about it – NEA sees them as a threat to its very existence.
The reasons are not hard to understand. NEA has enjoyed substantial membership and revenue growth during the decades-long decline of the labor movement. It is now the largest union in America and by far the largest single political campaign spender in the 50 states.
But after some 27 years of increases, NEA membership is down in 43 states. The union faces a $14 million budget shortfall, and the demand for funds from its Ballot Measure/Legislative Crises Fund is certain to exceed its supply. Even the national UniServ grants, which help pay for NEA state affiliate employees, will be reduced this year.
In the past, NEA has routinely faced challenges to its political agenda, mostly in the form of vouchers, charters and tax limitations. But the state legislative and gubernatorial results in the 2010 mid-term elections emboldened Republicans for the first time to systematically target the sources of NEA’s power, which have little to do with education and everything to do with the provisions of each state’s public sector collective bargaining laws.
Hence the Manichaean battle in Madison. There has been a virtually non-stop expansion of the scope of public sector collective bargaining over the past 35 years. If the tide turns, it may take a lot longer than 35 years to get those privileges back.
“We are at war,” incoming NEA executive director John Stocks told the union’s board of directors last month, outlining a plan to keep NEA from joining the private sector industrial unions in a slow, steady decline into irrelevancy to anyone outside the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. And like any good war plan for an army under siege, it allows for a defense-in-depth while preparing for a decisive counterattack.
The first line of defense is to stop anti-union legislation at its point of origin. The Wisconsin Education Association Council tried to head off Gov. Walker’s bill with its “bold reforms” campaign. After the bill was introduced, there were massive rallies, sit-ins, and Democratic senators fleeing the state, along with various other parliamentary maneuvers.
The second line of defense is judicial. In Wisconsin, the public sector unions have already stalled the implementation of the collective bargaining bill through court order. But that isn’t the only place. NEA successfully blocked a new law preventing its Alabama affiliate from collecting dues through payroll deduction. Even if these court battles fail, the time consumed will enable NEA to prepare its third line of defense, which is electoral.
Recalls are not out of the question, but it’s more likely that NEA and other public sector unions will seek to ride an increase in activism and a perception of GOP overreach into large victories in 2012. Whatever hostile laws slip through the first two lines will be eliminated by new majorities of union-friendly Democrats.
While arguably weaker than in years past, NEA is still a political powerhouse, and will not be content with lying against the ropes, being pummeled by Republicans. Union officers are smart enough to recognize that the best use of its resources is in the states, rather than in Congress and the White House. Rommel once observed that “the battle is fought and decided by the quartermasters before the shooting begins.” NEA will see to it that its state affiliates are supplied with all the ammunition they need.
Despite its budget shortfall and freeze on executive pay, the national union is flush with cash, and aims to double the size of its political war chest. The bulk of this money will go to the state affiliates, though the national union will have a larger hand in how it is disbursed.
We can expect the state affiliates to spend most of it opposing unfriendly bills and initiatives, but with more money available, there will still be plenty left to fund measures like the proposed capital gains and income tax hikes in Massachusetts.
The need to modify the budget to accommodate reduced revenue actually works in NEA’s favor in a crisis. Just as with government budgets, reductions in NEA budgets tend to cause squawking from the recipients of those funds. In today’s atmosphere, the union will be able to reallocate money to its foremost priorities with little pushback from internal constituencies.
NEA’s growth in membership and political influence over the years has been accompanied more recently by increasingly bad press. In response, the union will be “building a new external narrative about NEA as dedicated to improvement of the profession, student success and social justice.”
Historically, NEA has been slow to embrace new technologies, but the new external narrative requires prominence on the Internet and social media. The NEA message will naturally appear in all its publications – electronic and otherwise – but with a need for rapid response there will be emphasis on the union’s Education Votes web page and its associated Facebook and Twitter outlets. We will also see a greater presence by NEA’s officers in the blogosphere.
Accompanying NEA’s PR strategy will be new research on pensions, tenure and teacher evaluations, collective bargaining and, of course, funding.
Finally, NEA recognizes that its success or failure relies on feelings of solidarity from AFT, private sector unions, and parents. It will downplay differences on side issues in order to gain support on its priorities.
Whether NEA can do all – or any – of these things is an open question. My own judgment is that the union is better as an immovable object than an irresistible force. It is much more likely to successfully stymie its opponents’ initiatives than it is to successfully prosecute its own course of action.
Ultimately, the Republican governors, lawmakers and activists have their work cut out for them. They will be met with defiance, roadblocks, stalling, foot-dragging and subterfuge for as long as these proposals work their way through the legislative process and long after they become law. In the end, NEA may help elect friendly politicians who will restore their lost powers and revenues.
But the same tactics that may gain such victories will negatively affect the union’s public image. Win or lose, NEA’s actions will “build an external narrative” that no PR strategy can alter. The outcome of NEA’s war is still very much in doubt, but that battle has already been decided.