NEA, Past and Present

Mike Antonucci, my cyber-friend and the watchdog of America’s largest union, has asked if I have any thoughts on the recent NEA RA.  Mike, you should be careful what you ask for.

 This NEA Convention seems to have generated little real news.  The ongoing organizational schizophrenia that has driven NEA for the past two decades continues to fade into the background.

 NEA has for a long time presented (I think that’s the medical term) two personalities.  The first to coalesce was the economic side, which was driven by a focused desire to raise the income of teachers.  It was believed that this would elevate the profession, attract better teachers while retaining the best, and ultimately improve the quality of education in America.  This was all in the best “business union” tradition of Samuel Gompers and the AFL, and it worked well for the “professional union” that NEA was.

 The second personality was that of the social reformer, whose goal was the perpetual Gnostic hope: to transform America by teaching children how to change the world.  This activist persona always conflicted with the economic drive.

 The business unionists were the organization’s modern builders, creating the entire collective bargaining structure: local unions, UniServ staff, negotiations training, etc.   Beginning in the 60’s they were quickly drawn into the political/legislative arena by the need to pass state collective bargaining laws for public employees, and to persuade states to pump more money into teacher salaries. 

 The “reformers” were an obvious product of the other side of the 60’s, the activist students who went into teaching and began to strategize how to change the world from the classroom.  They first made their presence felt in NEA at the national level, turning the Resolutions Committee into a Culture War Commissariat starting in the 70’s.  And while many joked that only NEA’s enemies read the NEA Resolutions, the fact is that they had their impact.

 The tension between these two groups was, and to some extent is still palpable in every corner of the NEA, in every local, and within almost every leader.   An uneasy balance of power has prevailed at times.  But the reformers have held the upper hand at least since 1992 and the Clinton victory.

Politics originally bound them together, as NEA’s growing political clout at every level begat a sense of power, which always seeks outlets.  Economic lobbying was in the early days a relatively bi-partisan affair, as mainstream Main Street Republicans often supported liberal Democrats on school funding.  But the reformers’ issues were overwhelmingly those of the Democratic Party, and the effective merger of NEA and the Dems was cemented in place by the 1980’s.

As the Culture War centered in so many cases in schools, the reformers were given ample opportunities to shine.  Censorship issues, prayer in schools, sex education, values clarification, and on and on: every issue could be presented as imposition on teachers’ “freedom to teach”, so NEA signed on and the reformers rose in standing.  Through Alinskyite organizing, every fight, whether won or lost, was a strategic victory.

As NEA became increasingly committed to the Leftist social agenda, and subsumed within the Democratic Party, its impact as a culture warrior has grown to mythical proportions.  The business unionists’ economic goals?  Not so much.

The impact of all this on the schools is evident on every hand.  I saw a “60 Minutes” segment recently about the “Slow Food Movement”; organics, natural foods locally grown, all the rest.  What was most startling was the ease within which this aesthetically pleasing but nutritionally debatable “movement” had grafted itself onto Elementary School curriculums in the Bay Area.  There were the eight-year old activists drawing posters about good organic foods versus bad pesticides.  There was no sign that the teacher had discussed how this “movement” would go about feeding Bangladesh; but then, the “60-Minutes” interviewer hadn’t brought that up either.

So, the new NEA goes on its victorious way, resolving to change America through the classroom, and too often succeeding.  The old war horses like Bob Chanin fade into the past (in his case certainly none too soon).  The Executive Director, John Wilson, who seemingly disappears against any wallpapered surface, continues to preside over this new behemoth of Hope and Change.

If there is a hope that NEA can get back to the real business their members care most about, it may lie in the increasing unionization of NEA.  As Mike points out, the open acceptance of the union label by NEA is unprecedented.  Will it lead to a re-discovery the economic need that gave birth to the modern NEA?

But there is a great deal more to consider here, not only in the reformers’ successful takeover and re-direction of NEA.  Their success may help to shine a light on one of the great political question of our time.  Given that conservatives invariably start each Culture War battle with the mass of public opinion on their side, they just as invariably end up losing ground and, finally, collapsing.  Why is that, do you think?

For more on NEA and labor issues, go to “Unions” page.

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2 Responses to “NEA, Past and Present”


  1. 1 Richard G. Neal July 13, 2009 at 4:02 pm

    Hi, Hans:
    Your article, “NEA, Past and Present,” was excellent. It’s obvious that you have the “big picture.” I began teaching in 1952 and soon thereafter became a life member of the NEA, serving as the paid director of a large local teachers association. Early on, I saw the trend to industrial labor relations and became a chief negotiator and trainer for school boards nationally. I have recently written several books and articles on school choice (which, of course, the NEA resists). So — I have closely experienced the teacher unionism movement for over five decades. Although there are many reasons why monopoly government schools are not the best model for helping youth learn, the NEA and AFT certaninly deserve much credit for
    making a bad situation worse.
    Dick

  2. 2 educ8m July 13, 2009 at 4:03 pm

    As a lone wolf Canadian reader, I wish we had someone like you writing about our Canadian brothers and sisters from the cynical inside. Keep writing we need the word to get to the outside.


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