Will Marching Against Poverty Restore NEA’s Bottom Line?

November 19, 2012

1) Will Marching Against Poverty Restore NEA’s Bottom Line? The National Education Association is looking for a way out of a bind. As it proved once again this year, NEA’s main avenue of success is its ability to win elections through the massive application of committed activists and cold cash. Its problem is that political defeats are costly, but victories are often only temporarily beneficial. The 2008 elections did lead to stimulus packages and edujobs bills, but they also led to the worst four-year membership losses in NEA’s long existence. So while favorable results at the ballot box in 2012 are helpful, they don’t guarantee smooth sailing ahead for the union.

The Occupy movement, the Wisconsin protests, the Chicago teacher strike and the 2012 voter turnout, combined with the accession of John Stocks as NEA’s executive director, have led the union’s officers to adopt an approach they believe will establish NEA not only as a powerful labor union, but as a leader in the broader realm of social issues.

Stocks unveiled this move with his “social justice patriot” speech at the NEA representative assembly last July, but it didn’t start there:

Never in the history of our nation have public schools been under such relentless attack. Never in the history of teacher unionism has there been a greater urgency to rethink strategy.

To meet these challenges, our public schools and our teacher unions should set two key goals: survival and justice. Furthermore, these goals are inextricably linked. Our system of public education and our teacher unions will not survive unless they more forthrightly address issues of social justice.

Those words didn’t come from John Stocks in 2012; they came from Bob Peterson, now the president of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, in 1999. Peterson was, and is, a proponent of the concept of “social justice unionism,” which he described as “part of a broader movement for social progress rather than merely focused on narrow self-interest.” Stocks spent much of his career in Wisconsin and appears to want to apply these themes nationally.

The value of social justice unionism as a philosophy is a matter for academics. I am only interested in its practical application for a union that needs to increase membership and ameliorate budget deficits. We already have a few clues about how this will work.

For one thing, NEA is trying to get out of the business of simply providing cash grants to friendly organizations and will insist on joint efforts in exchange for financial support. Additionally the union will hold a “dialogue on social justice” next month. This is to have the dual goal of placing NEA firmly in the civil rights picture while activating minority members in the union ranks.

The long-term strategy is to recruit new members and increase the participation of existing members through social justice issues. In fact, NEA organizers have been told to stop emphasizing the union’s services, liability insurance and workplace protections and instead focus on “core values.”

A large number of NEA staffers have been reassigned to training state and local officers in organizing – a skill some have let atrophy during the decades of booming enrollment and teacher hiring. While overall staffing levels will require political work in state legislatures, NEA plans to seek out new markets in charter and online schools, early childhood education workers, and members of non-union teacher organizations.

It’s important to note that these are NEA’s plans. They face a number of obstacles internally, regardless of whether outsiders put up a fight. First, NEA’s devotion to social justice unionism does not necessarily mean it will be embraced wholeheartedly in all of its state affiliates. Changes of direction are relatively easy to map out in a DC conference room, but notoriously difficult to implement among state and local officers with agendas of their own. Ask Bob Chase.

Second, organizing a union of 3 million members around social issues may be a winning strategy as long as those issues are general and amorphous. Protecting the working class, equal rights for all, affordable health care and reducing poverty will generate widespread support. But if the specifics turn out to be in service of a narrow liberal political worldview, it will have no more success than NEA’s current strategy, and might in fact play into the hands of the union’s political opponents.

Third, positioning NEA as one of the leaders of a mass movement opens the door for other organizations to take up the “self-interest” mantle. Members might prefer a union that spends its time negotiating contracts instead of heightening climate change awareness.

NEA believes that stressing its broad social justice principles will improve its self-interests. It’s nice when those things coincide. We’ll see which one the union chooses if they don’t.

2) Last Week’s Intercepts. EIA’s blog, Intercepts, covered these topics from November 13-19:

Election Win for Charters Is Only the First Hurdle. First the ballot box, then the courtroom.

The Wrath of Conn. Will Detroit make Chicago look like Topeka?

Back to Reality. Union organizing isn’t what it used to be.

Technology Marches On. Changes to the EIA web site, and perhaps to this e-mail newsletter as well. Stand by for more.

Summary of NYSUT’s Campaign Financing. How do I elect thee? Let me count the ways.

3) Quote of the Week. “President Obama not only won this election, but so did his ideas and his values. The American people want fairness. They want everyone to pay their fair share…. But what we also have to do is to make sure that the corporations who earn billions of dollars pay some tax, and now they’re paying none.” – Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, a $1.6 billion tax-exempt organization. (November 13 PBS NewsHour)