Teachers Union: We’re Disconnected From Our Members
posted at 7:58 pm on January 21, 2014 by Mike Antonucci
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.
Each answer was analyzed in aggregate as well as within the governance level to which each respondent belonged. The first consensus was “NEA’s governance structure is too large and cumbersome to be effective.” A number of respondents referred to the union as “top-heavy” and disconnected from rank-and-file members. Even within the top levels of the organization, some leaders expressed a desire to remove levels of governance, or reduce the size of representative bodies.
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:
Alaska: “Many younger members don’t know about RA, and don’t understand the association.”
Arizona: “They are often unaware of the RA or NEA as parent group, and they are not sought out to run/attend.”
California: “Some members do not know what NEA does and some don’t even know that they are NEA members!”
Colorado: “Most of our members including those under 35 do not have any idea that RA exists let alone how to be elected as a delegate.”
Montana: “Awareness about the NEA RA amongst younger members is low.”
New York: “[Little] knowledge of what the RA does/why it matters.”
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.