NEA Activism: Not a Game for the Young

October 28, 2013

NEA Activism: Not a Game for the Young. We are all getting older, individually and collectively. Some groups are aging relatively faster than others, and none more so than those who hold a position with the National Education Association.

As EIA reported last week, the short-term outlook for NEA is not bright, with membership losses continuing to plague the union. The long-term outlook may be even bleaker, because most of NEA’s activists – the people who hold union office, show up for rallies, and walk precincts during political campaigns – are nearing the end of their careers.

While they still can be a force in their retirement, the union will have to replace them, and the evidence suggests that NEA’s younger members just aren’t all that interested in teachers’ unions. It’s causing headaches at NEA headquarters, where the powers-that-be are brainstorming ideas to attract millennials to union activism.

To understand NEA’s consternation, we need to look at a series of demographic statistics. They are not all from the exact same year but they get us in the ballpark. The 2010 U.S. Census tells us that the median age of an American was 37.2 years. The National Center for Education Statistics states that the median age for a traditional public school teacher in 2011-12 was 41.2 years. The Center for Economic and Policy Research revealed that the typical union member (in 2008) was 45 years old.

NEA collected demographic data from the 7,000 delegates to its 2013 Representative Assembly (RA). The majority of these delegates already hold union office, whether as state and local presidents, members of state- and local-level union representative bodies, or as site representatives at their local schools. In short, RA delegates are NEA’s most active members. This year NEA learned their average age was 51.

This wouldn’t necessarily be troubling if it was just a vestige of retiring Baby Boomer teachers, but the same report also revealed that only 10 percent of RA delegates were under 35 years of age.

To put that in perspective, 24.3 percent of all union members are under 35, roughly 34.5 percent of public school teachers are under 35, and 47.2 percent of the U.S. population is under 35. Even worse for the union, the median age of charter school teachers is 34.2.

Discussion among NEA insiders centers on the communications aspects of the problem. If only the union could get its message through to these youngsters. Alas, social media and smart phones aren’t going to solve these connection difficulties. Think of it this way: Will a young teacher feel more comfortable and empowered in a group of people her own age, or in a group of people her mom’s age?

Opening up union leadership to younger activists will mean relinquishing some control over the direction of the organization. Suppose seniority and retirement isn’t as much of a priority with them as it is with the 50-somethings. Will the old guard stand for that kind of change?

All large organizations reach this stage. Do you want new people with new ideas or new people with your ideas? Unless the union is able to hash it out, the younger members will continue to display their indifference and seek professional and political accommodation elsewhere.

Last Week’s Intercepts. EIA’s daily blog, Intercepts, covered these topics October 22-28:

“Let’s Get Rid of Step and Lane” Says NEA President. And then a little “revise and extend.”

Public School Staffing at Highest Level in Two Years. Despite sequestration.

NEA Rhode Island Officially Joins AFL-CIO. Slow disappearance of “professional association” arguments.

West Virginia Thrived During Economic Downturn. Not usually mentioned among big-spending states.

How Will Act 10 Affect Wisconsin School Spending? High-water mark in 2011.

Quote of the Week. “One privilege the insured and well-off have is to excuse the terrible quality of services the government routinely delivers to the poor. Too often, the press ignores — or simply never knows — the pain and trouble of interfacing with government bureaucracies that the poor struggle with daily. That can allow the problems in those bureaucracies to fester.” – Ezra Klein. (October 25 Washington Post)