Are the Fat Years Over for NEA and AFT? It used to be relatively easy for EIA to obtain accurate, up-to-date membership numbers for NEA and its state affiliates, but recently it has become a lot more difficult. Perhaps it is coincidental that the numbers are becoming harder and harder to find just as the news becomes less and less cheerful.
The tremors are small: lots of talk about needing inroads with Generation X teachers… financial problems here… possible layoffs there. In the past, membership problems were localized in the chronic, hard-to-organize states that had competing organizations. Today, the sounds are more widespread. NEA has grown every year since the mid-1980s, but for the first time the end of the boom may be in sight. The union experienced an increase of some 37,000 members this year — about half of what it achieved in 2000-2001. More alarming if you’re an NEA official is the fact that 20 state affiliates had a decrease in membership last year — even as the number of potential members nationwide continues to grow at a fairly steady 2 percent annual clip.
EIA cannot yet identify which state affiliates are growing and which are not, though it seems safe to assume that the large states — California, New Jersey, Michigan, Illinois, et al. — continue to enjoy solid growth, while perennial weak sisters are now having serious problems. Activities to reverse the trend are already underway. The NEA Board of Directors granted $175,000 to the Mississippi Association of Educators for additional organizing. The North Carolina Association of Educators is laying the groundwork for an effort in support of collective bargaining in the state. North Carolina law currently bans collective bargaining by teachers.
Accurate AFT numbers are even harder to amass, because more of its members are not K-12 teachers. Nevertheless, the same tremors are coming from AFT. The AFT Executive Council’s organizing committee met to discuss ways to get younger members more involved and active in the union. EIA estimates that about 70 percent of teachers are NEA and/or AFT members. Public school teaching may be the most highly unionized sector of the American workforce (the private sector is only 9 percent unionized). Is something about to give?