Who’s in Charge at NEA?

October 14, 2013

Who’s in Charge at NEA? That’s more than a rhetorical question at the headquarters of the National Education Association these days as the union takes the first tentative steps toward reworking its governance structure. Preliminary reactions from high-level insiders suggest it will be a long and difficult process.

The current structure is similar to a multi-tiered representative democracy – similar, not identical, because the rank-and-file members get only one formal vote. They elect most of the delegates to the union’s annual Representative Assembly (RA), which meets for four days every July. The state affiliate representative bodies elect someone to fill each state’s seats on the NEA board of directors, which meets four times annually over a long weekend. The next highest tier is the 12-member Executive Committee, which includes the union president, vice president and secretary-treasurer. All the committee members are elected by a vote of the RA delegates. Additionally, NEA has a number of standing committees, such as the one on resolutions, whose members are also elected by RA delegates.

That’s the textbook version. Just like most other large bureaucracies, the real decision-making flow chart would look a little different. Declining membership and revenues has led NEA to re-examine a governance structure that was built on perpetual growth. The first move in this direction was requiring that one meeting each year of the board of directors and each standing committee be held electronically, instead of in person.

Now, ever so gently, the union is floating the idea of making the RA every other year, instead of annual. Coupled with it are a series of proposals to restructure the composition of the board of directors and reduce it in size from its current level of about 165 seats.

Most of these ideas are meeting with stiff resistance from the board itself. A large majority of directors are particularly opposed to having local and state affiliate officers serve on the board. Indeed, many are resentful that NEA’s officers seem to bypass the board and deal directly with state affiliate presidents and executive directors. Apparently NEA president Dennis Van Roekel habitually holds a meeting with state affiliate presidents just prior to board meetings. Some board members believe this undercuts their authority.

Somewhat predictably, board members are more open to changing the structure of other union bodies. They are willing to consider having regional seats on the Executive Committee, instead of the current at-large seats. There is also majority support for reducing the size of the Resolutions Committee, but the board is evenly split on whether to limit changes to the resolutions to every two years.

There is sentiment among board members that their meetings too often consist of lectures from the national officers and not enough decision-making participation from the board.

Whether or not the NEA board of directors is a rubber stamp for decisions already reached is open to debate. What is clear is that no matter what the true situation is, the board doesn’t want to be treated like a rubber stamp. The union’s dilemma is whether its current straits will lead to more democracy, or less.

Last Week’s Intercepts. EIA’s daily blog, Intercepts, covered these topics October 8-14:

UFT’s Ghost Consultants Don’t Even Have a Logo. Laziest cover-up ever.

The Scales of Justice. Weak bill vetoed, status quo unacceptable.

More Students, Not Much Money in Utah. Stretching a dollar.

Vermont’s Large Districts Not Matching Staff to Enrollment. Spending ballooned.

School Spending Hikes Lagged in Virginia. Conflicting teacher numbers.

Quote of the Week. “A significant percentage of SEIU 1000 are Republican. Forty percent of the CTA members are Republicans. For years those Republicans have been trying to get their leadership – most of whom are activist Democrats – to give some of that money to Republicans. I’ve been working with the Republicans in these unions and they have been encouraging their leaders to take some of their dues money and give it to Republican causes.” – California Republican Party chairman Jim Brulte, explaining why the state party has been soliciting and receiving contributions from public employee unions. (October 9 Fox & Hounds)