I’m often asked why teacher unions skew so heavily towards the Democratic Party. This isn’t a mystery. Liberals are more active in the union, and though 12 years have passed since I wrote The NEA Pyramid, I believe it is still true that the larger a teacher union is, the more likely its leaders are to be liberal. If the overwhelming majority of decision-makers are Democrats, they are going to support Democratic policies and donate PAC money to Democrats. To expect them to support Republicans according to the percentage of Republican union members is naive.
Political leanings aside, the share of members who are actively involved in union activities is small. The last NEA survey I saw reported only 15 percent were “quite a bit” or “a great deal” involved. A full 36 percent were “not at all” involved.
The NEA Representative Assembly boasts some 7,000 delegates, but the union’s constitution allows for 1 delegate for every 1,000 members in a state affiliate, and 1 delegate for every 150 members in a local affiliate. “The world’s largest democratic deliberative body” is only about 35 percent of its authorized capacity.
State affiliates show similar participation rates. Less than half of the locals of the New York State United Teachers were represented at last April’s state convention, and the same was true of the 2016 annual meeting of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.
Many local union officers are not heavily involved in statewide activities. The California Teachers Association recently discovered that some 600 local union presidents (out of about 1,300) have not attended the state union’s annual presidents conference in the last three years.
Even though this means a relatively small group is responsible for major union policies, it also means a sizable group of union officers and representatives are less than enthusiastic about their state and national union’s activities and simply prefer to be left alone to hammer out local issues at the local level. Less monolithic thought is good for everyone.