Could AFT Membership Really Be Up?

The American Federation of Teachers claims it currently has 1,536,684 total members. This is noteworthy because it constitutes an increase of 552 members since 2010 - a period during which the National Education Association lost 118,186 members.

Your first reaction was probably the same as mine: That can’t be right. But after allowing for the utter lack of independent confirmation, and the idiosyncracies of how NEA and AFT report their total membership numbers, an examination of the available figures indicates it is indeed possible.

Before I demonstrate, let’s begin with the unsolved mystery portion: How does AFT report 1.5 million members to the public, and 873,454 members to the U.S. Department of Labor? I don’t have the answer to that question. Other than the omission of retirees from the latter number - which can’t possibly total more than 660,000 - I have no explanation.

The second anomaly is easier to explain. Ever since the first NEA-AFT state affiliate merger in 1998, both national unions have included the total membership of merged affiliates in their numbers. Today, with four merged state affiliates, there are more than 650,000 union members who belong to both NEA and AFT.

But each of those members is not two people, and does not pay full dues to both NEA and AFT. Yet NEA counts the full 400,000 New York State United Teachers in its membership, and AFT also counts the full 400,000.

So, without any state-by-state numbers to look at, how can we evaluate AFT’s claims? By looking at NEA’s numbers for those merged affiliates - Florida, Minnesota, Montana and New York. Lo and behold, despite overall bad numbers for NEA, those four state affiliates showed a combined increase of 10,251 members in 2011. Since they also constitute more than 42% of AFT’s total membership, the gains by these affiliates probably offset losses in others - and could still have had some left over to compensate for losses everywhere in 2012.

In the short term, the relative increase in AFT strength will have no effect. But if through policies or pure luck AFT were to hold its ground while NEA continued to experience large losses in membership, it could cause a sea change in relations between the two national teachers’ unions.