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Did the NEA out-union the AFT this summer?

July 20, 2010

Both organizations had their large meetings over the past three weeks. NEA (of which I am a member) has theirs annually; AFT holds its convention on a biannual basis.

Personally, I’ve always thought of AFT as the bulwark of the teacher-unionist movement. They were, after all, the first national teacher’s union to engage in collective bargaining. AFT is the house that Al Shanker built. NEA had to play catch-up and go from there.

The aftermath of the recent conventions makes me think that the NEA did out-union the AFT. But is that a good thing? Read on.

Point One:

I base my conclusion that the AFT was out-unioned because of the NEA NBI that declared no confidence in SIG/ RttT/ competitive grants, etc. As I read through Sawchuk’s missives from the convention, he did mention that there were rumors floating around about something similar going through AFT’s process (of which I am wholly unfamiliar with and will spare you any attempts to explain it) but that it did not happen.

The RA directed NEA to take a reactive and adversarial position on policy/legislation that divides local and state affiliates. I voted against that NBI. I think that it ties the hands of the leadership; I believe that I said as much through Twitter and somewhere on this blog.

When the NBI came up for a vote, division was called. The NBI passed. Someone called for a roll-call vote. According to NEA rules, it takes a standing vote of at least one-third of the membership present to go to a roll-call vote. Everything goes on lockdown. No delegates can come in or out of the RA chamber. I stood up for the roll-call vote. I believe that one-third of the members did.

But Van Roekel said there weren’t enough people, so the NBI passed, and that was that. I said then that Van Roekel called it wrong, that he made a mistake. I still believe that there were enough delegates who wanted the roll call to warrant the vote. I have changed my mind on one thing, though.

Van Roekel didn’t make a mistake. He called it how he wanted it to be.

By allowing the delegates to become the architects of this message, it absolved him (and the NEA leadership) of the responsibility of the creation of the message; he and the officers simply became the messengers. Well played, politically speaking.

Point Two:

After last year’s RA, Mike Antonucci’s post  “NEA discovers it is a labor union” highlighted something I saw as well in terms of the verbiage and the tone of the speeches, NBIs and such delivered there. NEA as an organization is something like an oil tanker or a cruise ship: all three are large, have enormous momentum, and do not stop or change directions on a dime. Therefore, it takes a while to change course. But why the change of course?

 At the time, I thought the inclusion of “union” in just about everything was something of a strategic decision with the end goal of setting the groundwork for the renegotiation of the NEA-AFL-CIO “Change To Win” agreement. I had figured that we would have done something about it at the 2010 RA and that the partnership would be ratified, solidified and lauded. Politically speaking, it would have made sense with the mid-term congressional elections to concentrate our resources. 

My understanding is that there are no negotiations going on regarding this partnership, that they are, in effect, dead. A shame, it is something that would have been mutually beneficial to both organizations. But still, NEA is maintaining its union course and not changing back to the “Association” shipping lane.


Van Roekel didn’t use the word “association” in his keynote address. He only used the word “union” once, in the context of “anti-union”. To me, this signifies acceptance or comfort with the “union” label. In my experience, the word Association is somewhat more palatable to rank and file members simply because of the non-professional connotations of “union”. For example, doctors don’t belong to a union, but they do belong to the American Medical Association.

It seems somewhat dichotomous for the NEA to maintain the label of  union (given the negatives associated with that term by rank and file membership) while constantly advocating for its members as professionals. I don’t care either way; I am an Association member, but I’m also a unionist.

By contrast, AFT President Randi Weingarten used the word “union” in her speech 9 times. I would have expected more usage of the word. To me, this is indicative of the AFT changing course.

Point Three:

Consider the choice of speakers of both the NEA and the AFT, subject to tons of interpretation from everyone, everywhere.

NEA bestowed the “Friend of Education” award to Diane Ravitch. A former staunch accountability and testing advocate, she has done an about-face on the issue. She is the personification of how many of our members feel about the current educational climate in this country, about where education is going and what is wrong with the system. She has been severe in her criticisms of Secretary Duncan and President Obama’s educational reform path. I think it was a strategic decision on the part of NEA to bestow this award on her, and the mult-faceted message it would send to the Obama administration. Her words, both written and spoken, are powerful, polarizing recognition of problems in education today.

AFT invited Bill Gates to speak. Referenced by Ravitch as a member of the “billionaire boys club”, Gates represents the exact opposite of what Ravitch champions. For the AFT to get Gates was strategic as well. Despite some delegates at the AFT convention walking out, or sitting on their hands prior to or during his speech, it too sends a message. To me, it sends the message of “Though we do not necessarily agree on everything, we do see the need for change and perhaps we can work together in some fashion to achieve it together”. This resonates as a collaborative move rather than an adversarial one to me on the part of AFT.

In conclusion…

I worry that the 2010 RA was the precursor signal from NEA membership that the organization should tend more toward a traditional industrial-style model of unionism. Focus more on bread and butter issues, less on reform-oriented, with less collaboration between management and labor. I think this sentiment is understandable, given the importance of bread and butter issues in the current economy, but a dangerous one.

I also worry that if this change is actually occurring, that it will limit the ability of the NEA to truly be at the table as educational reforms are being enacted at the national level. I am concerned that the AFT (whose constituency as a whole is much more urban than NEA’s) will be able to take the lead when it comes to innovation and collaborative reform. Would that hurt the credibility or the relevance of the NEA?

Maybe I’m overreacting.

But then again, maybe I’m not.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. preaprez permalink
    July 20, 2010 3:08 pm

    I guess I’m just confused by how you view things in the NEA.
    I think conceptualizing some kind of contest as to whether the AFT or the NEA is the most unionish is kind of weird. In my mind, there’s no tool to measure the level of unionism in play here.
    The issue is federal policy towards funding schools. The NEA leadership is taking a more aggressive posture in opposition to Race than the AFT leadership is. Neither are saints or sinners. I happen to agree with our leadership on the substance of this. You don’t.
    Roll call or no, you don’t seriously believe the no confidence vote lost the delegate vote?
    But here’s the core of my issue with your post:
    “By allowing the delegates to become the architects of this message, it absolved him (and the NEA leadership) of the responsibility of the creation of the message; he and the officers simply became the messengers. Well played, politically speaking.”
    As the unionist you claim to be, shouldn’t the delegates BE the architects of our message, not as some cynical political ploy, but as the essence of union democracy?

    • July 20, 2010 9:54 pm


      Regarding the no confidence vote, I think it was close, too close to call from where I was sitting. Even though I was (and voted) against it, I truly believed that it should have gone a step further, that the process should have continued to a roll-call vote.

      You’re right, the delegates should be the architects of the message. And to support this, there are steps in the process to make sure that the tenets (and bylaws) of our democracy are followed. I think on this NBI, it should have gone farther and didn’t. If a roll-call vote had been called and the NBI had still passed, I would have disagreed but been satisfied it had been vetted through the democratic process.

  2. July 20, 2010 6:26 pm

    “Innovation” and “collaborative reform” are killing us. We need to step back into a more adversarial role, and not let them RTTT all over us.


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