Former High-Ranking NEA Staffer Speaks Out on Union’s Direction

November 17, 2014

Former High-Ranking NEA Staffer Speaks Out on Union’s Direction. Until retiring last July, Bill Raabe was the National Education Association’s Director of the Center for Great Public Schools. Before that, he led NEA’s Collective Bargaining & Member Advocacy department. And before that, he had a long and storied career as a union staffer.

Bill commented on my Friday blog post, but there it will be seen only by a handful of people, and it deserves wider dissemination. I reprint it here without editorial comment.

Since the day after the election I have contemplated writing my thoughts about the reaction of unions (and specifically school employee unions) to this year’s election drubbing. To be fair, until July of this year, when I retired from the NEA, I have been either a member or staff of a school employee union since 1974. I have a deep commitment to school employees and their unions. So, all of what I think is impacted by the past forty years.

What I fear the most is that the unions will double-down on old strategies and tactics and use the term “organizing” over and over again as meaning to get more union members involved in the political process – not a bad thing in and of itself, but a losing long-term strategy if it is their intended means to build union relevancy. I have seen several unions indicate that they must do a better job organizing. I agree, but what that looks like in practice is the key to the future success of unions across this country –for school employee unions this must be a focus on the professional needs of educators . I also am concerned that the unions will build themselves up by suggesting they won’t back down – again not bad, unless it means they will continue to only be good at saying “no” to change. For too long unions (school employee unions, too) have relied on past successful strategies to deal with their current realities and their hoped-for futures. It is time for them to rethink how they operate.

To me relevancy is the key. Unions must recreate themselves to be relevant not only to the leaders who  thrive on internal and external political drama, but to the average member who is a school secretary in Washington, first grade teacher in Minnesota, or higher education faculty in Florida. Relevancy means focusing first and foremost on the learning lives of students and the professional lives of educators. This focus must be accomplished through real action, not just idle platitudes. Poll after poll of education professionals indicate their primary concern is to be effective in their responsibility to help students learn. School employee unions are well-positioned to meet those needs. Unions can lead in providing quality professional learning. They can use advocacy strategies (including collective bargaining where it exists) to move an agenda that meets the needs of students. They can listen to the community and act on the community’s needs.  They can develop evaluation systems that include student learning as an important component – after all, isn’t student learning the goal? They can lead real efforts to stimulate collaborative cultures to address the challenges facing public education.

Unions must also realize that all who are advocating for change (“the reformers”) are not the enemies of public education or the unions. Granted, there are those who want to privatize education and do away with the unions, but to be obsessed with those and not focus on the learning needs of students and professional needs of educators will do the unions little long-term good.

I am an optimist, some may call me naïve, but I see the day in the not too distant future where school employee unions, boards of education, administrators, the community, “reformers,” think tanks, foundations, parents and students will all be striving together in a culture of collaboration to meet the needs of every student who crosses the threshold of the schoolhouse (whether that is a brick and mortar schoolhouse or an electronic schoolhouse).

My optimism will be misplaced if the unions’ reaction to the election is to do more of the same, only harder. If they hope that doing so will reverse the trend of declining membership, they will be sorely mistaken. I hope their reaction is double-down on their commitment to students’ needs and the professional lives of educators and build unions that have real “power”  because educators see the unions as being totally relevant to their work lives.

I do not expect, nor want, the unions to remove themselves from the political process, that too would be foolish. Yet a serious evaluation of what they stand for, where to focus resources, and where to focus their energies is necessary. What if the unions would spend millions of dollars on a professional learning academy for educators? What if they would send national staff to “targeted” states to develop union-led professional development schools? What if they would focus on developing truly collaborative cultures in local after local across this country? My hope for the unions is that some of these “what ifs” enter into the conversations in union board meetings soon!

I want the unions to thrive in the future. The “voice” they can give to educators is essential to quality public education.

Unions, please react to the elections in a way that moves you forward into a brighter future.

Recent Intercepts. EIA’s daily blog, Intercepts, covered these topics November 11-17:

Good News! NEA Says It Wasted Only $40 Million. Can’t call any numbers exaggeration or downplay if we don’t define categories.

Veterans Day: Remembering the Computer Age. I was using a wireless computer in 1982.

Subtle. It was “about the most stereotypically racist move I’ve ever seen from any campaign,” said an SEIU spokesman. What kind of candidate would do such a thing?

Palm Beach Pickets. Union staff wants contract adherence from union management.

Credit Where Credit Is Due. Payback is a… surprise.

Quote of the Week. “I didn’t think it could get worse, but right now I think it’s just as bad as it’s ever been. People don’t want to believe that the unions are constructive, just generally.” – Susan Moore Johnson, a research professor at Harvard’s graduate school of education, discussing the public image of teachers’ unions. (November 17 Washington Post)