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Interview: Mike Antonucci on the NEA Convention

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Mike Antonucci has been publishing an electronic newsletter on teachers’ unions and education for more than 10 years. He is the sole proprietor of the Education Intelligence Agency, a for-profit research and consulting service based in Elk Grove, Calif. Often a critic of teachers’ unions, he is also widely considered one of their closest observers.

This is an edited transcript.

You’ve covered the National Education Association convention for 10 years now. For people who have never attended and don’t know what it’s all about, could you give them a sense of that? If you’ve ever seen a party convention on TV, the atmosphere is very similar and the substance of it is very similar. You’ll see usually somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000 delegates all in one convention hall, seated by state, with funny costumes, balloons, and streamers. The business that goes on is very much like a political party convention in that the delegates elect representatives--officials of the association. The delegates also discuss what would normally be considered planks in the political platform, items to advance the association’s agenda for education.

Listen to the complete interview with Education Week assistant editor Bess Keller and Mike Antonucci (right), director of the online Education Intelligence Agency. Among other things, the EIA focuses on the inner workings of the teachers' unions and Mr. Antonucci has covered the NEA's annual convention extensively for the past 10 years.

What’s supposed to be accomplished at the end of the four days that constitute the Representative Assembly? The idea is that the delegates represent the rank-and-file members back in their home states and locals. So they come here once a year and for four days they provide the direction that the union will take for the rest of the year.

What impressions might a first-time delegate take away? Are they surprised by the nature of the event? It’s a bit overwhelming. The process by which 9,000 people get to have a say in the decision-making of the organization is a bit complicated and difficult to follow. Couple that with the noise and events going on, for a first-time delegate, it is a little bit hard to follow what’s happening. But they tend to be well motivated and enthusiastic people, and probably for most of them it gives them a taste of it, and a desire to come back and be more involved in it.

Can you recall something you’d consider a highlight of the work of the Representative Assembly? I’d have to say that it would be that first [convention] I attended, where the leadership and some of the state affiliates that were close with the AFT wanted to merge [with the smaller national union] and there was a lot of pressure on delegates to approve a merger. It was fought by some of the larger state delegations, such as New Jersey, Illinois and Michigan, who had contentious relationships with the AFT affiliates in their states and did not want to merge to be associated with the AFL-CIO. These two factions fought tooth and nail over the period of the convention. There was a lot of political arm-twisting on both sides to try to get the votes they needed.

But when it was over and the merger had been defeated, the two factions cobbled together a compromise. They decided they would seek a partnership, something short of a merger, with the AFT leadership, so that both sides got something they wanted out of it. The whole process was a big political battle followed by a compromise on the direction of the association afterwards. I think that was NEA democracy at its best.

How about the Representative Assembly at its worst? I would say that since then, there’s been a high premium paid for not having that kind of fight again. So a lot of differences are papered over. Consensus is sought out on everything. I think it’s really done damage to the democratic process of the association because a lot of viewpoints get buried underground. There’s a lot of tension under the surface. Then you come to the convention, and it’s four days of happy talk.

What kind of issues are creating that tension and might be hashed out to some degree on the floor of the Representative Assembly? I think alternative forms of pay. To bring up any alternative to the standard pay scale—not just “performance” or “merit” pay--on the floor of the convention anymore is difficult because at the convention back in 2000 or 2001, an alteration to the policy got slammed down so hard by the delegates, now people are afraid to talk about it.

Charter schools are another issue [where] the union doesn’t have a coherent policy. Some union members are adamantly opposed to it and place them in the same categories as vouchers. There are other people who think the union ought to be out organizing the charter school employees and bringing them into the union family. And there’s another group of people who think it should be ignored altogether. But this stuff never gets hashed out on the floor of the convention. So each of the locals and states basically goes its own way. For an organization that cherishes the single message so much, they’ve got a lot of different messages on charter schools, just as an example.

Yet I know as an observer every year there are issues that generate controversy, at least there are ones that have people speaking pro and con. A lot of times it’s a social issue or it’s the issue of the day. For instance, at this convention, we’ve got a new business item that came up on immigration. In 10 years this is the first time that I’ve heard the immigration issue discussed on the floor of the Representative Assembly. So the only thing that can be driving that is that it’s in the news, it’s being considered by Congress. Regardless of the fact that these people are union members and they are interested in union issues, they are Americans as well and have all the different views that you might hear on immigration out in the public. The association, again, wants to be in the position of not taking a stance on immigration that will alienate one half of their members in order to embrace the other half. So you’ll find of a lot of the stuff that goes on here at the convention is word-smithing resolutions and new business items so they can be embraced by both sides of any controversy.

The American Federation of Teachers meets every other year. You have attended three of those gatherings. How would you compare the way the AFT does business at its conventions with the NEA’s Representative Assembly. The substance of the topics is very similar, but the procedures they follow are completely different. The AFT has a committee process before things come up on the floor of their convention, so a lot of these odd-ball items or fringe issues never make it to the floor. The committee dismisses them. They have very strict time limits on debate. You’ll never finish an AFT convention running into the wee hours of the last day. If they have unfinished business, they’ll refer whatever is remaining to the executive council for a decision. If that happened here at the NEA convention, I’m afraid there would be a riot.

Do these difference say something about the unions more generally? I think NEA places a higher premium on giving everyone a chance to speak their piece, just to give those people a sense of participation. I don’t think the outcomes are any different. They both end up having pretty much the same position on the major issues of the day, particularly the education issues. But the AFT is very much more a labor union of the traditional sort. I once made a comparison of keynote speeches by the NEA president and the AFT president in the same year. The NEA president mentioned the word “union” once, while the AFT president mentioned the word “union” 47 times in his speech. I think that sums up the difference between the two organizations. AFT is very much part of the larger labor movement, while the NEA still considers itself to be somewhat outside of that as a professional association.

Thank you. You’re very welcome.

Vol. 26

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