New Unionboss

By Ann Bradley — June 23, 1999 15 min read

Bob Chase professes not to understand what all the fuss over his reform agenda is about. After all, he says in his mild-mannered way, he campaigned three years ago for the presidency of the National Education Association on a promise to devote the union’s resources to improving public education. As his first term ends, Chase has won some and lost some in his offensive to reinvent the nation’s largest teachers’ union.

Most important, he’s still standing--unopposed for re-election as delegates prepare to gather next month in Orlando, Fla., for the NEA’s annual Representative Assembly.

Chase has taken on some of the toughest issues of any NEA leader in recent history. And he has done it in his characteristic style: by listening to people, reasoning with them, and then pushing on with what he believes is right.

He caused a sensation in early 1997 with a speech at the National Press Club here calling for re-creating the union as the champion of high-quality teaching and high-quality public schools, or what he called “new unionism.”

That summer, he persuaded union delegates to drop the NEA’s longstanding opposition to peer assistance and review. Those programs match top-notch teachers with novices and struggling veterans--and allow them to counsel people out of the profession, if necessary.

Taking an even bigger risk, Chase stumped hard last year for a merger between the NEA and its longtime rival, the American Federation of Teachers.

Although the “principles of unity” negotiated by teams from the two unions went down to resounding defeat at the hands of NEA delegates last summer, Chase withstood the disappointment and has managed to heal bruised feelings among the troops.

Indeed, a survey of the delegates taken after the vote found that 86 percent favored merger--which Chase had argued all along. It was just the framework for achieving it that didn’t wash.

Chase has used his presidency to try to reshape the NEA in a very public fashion.

Julia Koppich, a San Francisco-based education consultant and an authority on teacher unions, calls Chase “a very gutsy NEA president.”

“The fact that Bob lobbied long and hard and vocally and publicly for that merger was very important,” she says. “While not all of his ideas have yet been accepted by the organization, they certainly haven’t been repudiated.”

The self-effacing Chase often argues that he is promoting policies that many teachers already favor. It’s just that the climate has changed to allow them to give voice to their sentiments.

As an example, he cites favorable reaction to his pleas that beginning teachers be inducted gently into the profession, rather than assigned the worst classes to teach and too many extracurricular activities to monitor. While sensible, his suggestion flies in the face of seniority rules that often exempt veteran teachers from such duties. But members, he says, have welcomed it.

“There’s a different kind of receptiveness to thinking in more or deeper ways about what we need to do in the profession to help the profession,” he says during a recent interview in his spacious corner office at the NEA’s headquarters here, just a few blocks north of the White House. “The whole idea of pushing quality teaching--it’s rather amazing how quickly people have positively responded. It’s almost like there was this pent-up stuff inside people. They were so ready to deal with issues in different ways, and for some reason, they just didn’t do it.”

One obvious reason for members’ reluctance, of course, could be the absence of bold leadership at the national level pressing them to think differently.

It’s not that the NEA hasn’t had strong presidents. Mary Hatwood Futrell made a lasting name for herself for her stewardship of the union at a time when members felt buffeted by teacher-bashing and willy-nilly proposals from politicians for merit pay and career ladders. But Futrell didn’t goad her members--at least not publicly. She endeared herself to them by effectively fighting back against their critics.

Her successor, Keith B. Geiger, came into office thundering about expanding collective-bargaining rights and went out a modest reformer, able to complain about the straitjacket imposed by bargaining rules.

Chase, in contrast, has used his presidency to try to reshape the NEA in a very public fashion.

“He has very clearly been out front of the membership in ways which are unusual, I think, to the NEA,” says Sandra Feldman, the president of the AFT, which has long been seen as more venturesome on matters of school reform. “Where historically a president has basically been elected to carry out and implement policy developed by the Representative Assembly, he has seen his role as someone who will lead in the policy arena.”

Bob Chase may be mild-mannered, but the president of the National Education Association has proposed bold initiatives to change the nature of the largest union in the land.

The NEA president can still remember the day that his high school English teacher and track coach suggested that he consider a career in teaching. Though Chase’s humble background is typical for a teacher of his generation, the idea took him entirely by surprise.

“I would never have thought that I could be a teacher,” the 56-year-old Chase recalls. “I just didn’t think I was knowledgeable or smart enough, or that I would know what to do. I wasn’t the greatest student, on top of that.”

Certainly no one at home on Massachusetts’ Cape Cod would have planted such a seed. Chase’s father, a blue-collar laborer, was an alcoholic, and his mother had an 8th grade education. He is the only one of five children to graduate from college; some of his siblings didn’t complete high school.

Chase started his career at age 11, washing dishes illegally in a restaurant, and has worked ever since, including serving a tour of duty in an artillery division of the U.S. Army in Germany between 1968 and 1970 during the Vietnam War era.

He doesn’t talk about his background, partly because “personal stuff is personal stuff,” and partly because he doesn’t think it’s a big deal. “There are lots and lots of people who lived that story, who were teachers when I began teaching who had that background,” he explains. “So it’s nothing that’s unique or unusual. It’s not a badge of anything; it just is, it just was, and you just live with it, that’s all.”

He is the only one of five children to graduate from college; some of his siblings didn’t complete high school.

The rookie teacher at Dennis-Yarmouth Regional High School in South Yarmouth, Mass., whose guidance helped shaped Chase’s life confirms that “Bobby” didn’t have any easy time growing up. But Alan Carlsen saw leadership qualities in Chase, who was elected co-captain of the track team even though he wasn’t the best runner.

“He has always been a person who has meant what he says,” remarks Carlsen, who appeared on the stage with Chase at the NEA’s 1997 meeting. “He’s very, very sincere. When he states objectives and things he wants to do and hopes to accomplish, he’s not just talking. He really means it.”

Given that disposition, it’s not surprising that Chase also considered becoming a priest, thanks to the kind influence of his parish priest. He spent two years in a Roman Catholic seminary, in fact, before deciding to pursue teaching.

The seminary, he says, “was preparing me supposedly to deal with real-world problems from an unreal perspective, and I couldn’t do that.”

Instead of taking religious vows, Chase opted for the very real world of middle schools. He often jokes that teachers are the bones upon which children sharpen their teeth, and that he got plenty of scars in 25 years of teaching social studies.

Chase watches presidential-election returns in 1992 with then-NEA President Keith B. Geiger, Marilyn Monahan, and Debra DeLee, seated. Chase is not the political animal his predecessor was.

After graduating from Providence College in Rhode Island, Chase landed in Danbury, Conn., in 1965, attracted by its proximity to New York City. Teachers were poorly paid, disrespected, and had no professional voice, he remembers, and the union seemed like the place to address such grievances.

Similarly, it was natural for unions to apply their muscle to influence legislation, he says, because so much of what governs schools is decided by political leaders.

Now, more than three decades later, it seems consistent to Chase for unions to evolve further to tackle questions of teacher and school quality. It is a position, the history teacher notes, entirely consistent with the historical role of craft unions in policing their own ranks.

Chase didn’t arrive at his current position--or what he calls “my agenda"--in such a linear way, though. Instead, like most American teachers, he felt defensive and angry when critics began to lambaste public schools in the mid-1980s.

“He was less than complimentary about the report,” recalls Milton Goldberg, who served as executive director of the federal commission that produced A Nation at Risk, the 1983 manifesto that touched off a tide of reform initiatives.

In his headline-making 1997 speech at the National Press Club, in fact, Chase called his previous view that the NEA should stick to bargaining for better pay and working conditions “the biggest mistake of my career.”

Futrell, he said, wanted to mobilize the union to lead a reform movement, while Chase, a member of the executive committee, wanted the union to “stick to our knitting.”

Daria Plummer, the president of the Connecticut Education Association and a longtime acquaintance of Chase’s, says he was “as hard-core a unionist--and I don’t mean that pejoratively, but as standing up for the rights of teachers--as anyone I knew in this organization nationally or statewide.”

After serving as the president of the state NEA affiliate from 1980 to 1981, Chase went on to serve on the national association’s board of directors and executive committee before being elected vice president in 1989. From that position, he successfully challenged Marilyn Monahan, then secretary-treasurer, for the presidency in 1996. He earns $202,320 a year.

Plummer suspects what Chase confirms: There was no single reason for his change of heart. Instead, he says, “it just took me a while to understand that to deal with issues of quality is not in any way anti-union.”

When Chase returned this spring to the National Press Club to give a progress report on “new unionism,” none other than Goldberg sat at the head table. He is now the executive director of the National Alliance of Business, a Washington organization that promotes school reform from a business perspective, and one of the many groups with which Chase has tried to build bridges during his presidency.

That March day wasn’t a banner one for Chase, who was suffering from a painful abscessed tooth. But he gamely plowed through his remarks, reporting that NEA members are engaged in some 300 local initiatives designed to revitalize the public schools.

To critics, it was mostly smoke and mirrors.

“It was all inputs,” contends David W. Kirkpatrick, a former president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, who now promotes charters, vouchers, and other alternatives to public schools. “He says a lot of the right things, but I don’t think much is really changing.”

Koppich, the San Francisco consultant who has written a book about teacher unions, points out that the NEA is a difficult organization to change because it’s so heavily staff-dominated. “The president doesn’t have a whole lot of control over the staff.”

Chase and Don Cameron, the executive director who manages the union’s more than 500 staff members, have a close working relationship. And during Chase’s tenure, the NEA has hired some 15 new professionals for its teaching and learning division--putting it on a par, for the first time, with its government-relations division.

Anne L. Bryant, the executive director of the National School Boards Association, says Chase is “extremely highly regarded” by the staff members she knows from years managing Washington advocacy groups.

Ultimately, says Bryant, Chase can only move as fast as the NEA’s state leadership wants to go. “In the beginning, it’s words and a dream,” she says. “He’s wonderful at talking about the words and the dream.”

Using his bully pulpit to communicate with the union’s 2.4 million members and national opinion leaders is a big part of Chase’s job. He is on the road making speeches 60 percent of the time; in one stretch last year, he slept at his condominium near the Washington Cathedral just two nights in six weeks.

Unlike his predecessor, Keith Geiger, Chase shows little zeal for the politicking that comes with his job. He does meet with members of Congress, both Republican and Democrat, as part of the heavily Democratic union’s efforts to pursue a more bipartisan approach.

“The more people see us as willing to do this,” he explains, “the more opportunities we have to positively impact on the formulation of policies, rather than react once they’re developed. If you’re only in a reactive mode, what happens a lot of the time is you’re a naysayer, and that doesn’t serve anyone well.”

His preference for schoolchildren over politics is evident. No matter how many times he repeats the same lines, Chase visibly chokes up when talking about the needs of children. His obvious commitment to their welfare endears him to NEA members, says Robert Haisman, the outgoing president of the Illinois Education Association.

“A lot of times, by the time his speech is over, there’s not a dry eye in the house,” Haisman says of the union’s annual conventions, which draw 10,000 delegates. “I admire that--it’s why I’m glad he’s the NEA president.”

In his 25 years attending the Representative Assembly, Haisman says, “there were some where I never heard the word ‘children’ mentioned. I want them to be front and center, and 90 percent of my fellow delegates share that feeling.”

His compassion for children, says Chase, who is divorced, stems from his love for his two grown daughters, whom he calls “absolutely the joy of my life.” Jennifer Birlem, 28, is a massage therapist in Boulder, Colo., and Heather Chase, 26, is an actress and educator in nearby Takoma Park, Md.

It was as a teacher, Chase often says, that he had a “real job,” one that enabled him to touch the lives of students in profound ways.

One of his proudest accomplishments came after he returned to the classroom in 1981, after serving as the president of the Connecticut Education Association.

The state was experiencing a resurgence of activity by the Ku Klux Klan, which was holding rallies and forming a klavern in Danbury. Union members began calling association officials, asking for help.

Under Chase’s leadership, the union ended up writing an award-winning curriculum. But the kudos came only after the teacher he appointed to chair the effort received threats. When union leaders booked a Hartford hotel to offer teachers workshops on using the materials, Klan members made more threats. Eventually, the association moved its seminars to a church, under police protection.

Chase wanted to use the curriculum in his history course, but first he had to fight for permission (union representative in tow, of course) because the materials had not been approved by the district.

NEA delegates celebrate last summer after defeating the plan to merge with the AFT. Despite the loss, Chase still enjoys the trust of his membership. He is running unopposed for his second term.

Once he got his way, Chase found himself faced with a student whose grandfather’s farm was the rallying point for the Danbury Klan.

The boy approached his teacher and asked to be allowed to present material representing the Klan’s viewpoint--to which Chase said no. But he did offer to read it and talk to the boy later.

After the two-week unit, during which the youngster caused no trouble, Chase waited another week and then approached him about having a discussion.

The boy’s answer stays with Chase to this day: “I said, ‘Are you ready to sit down and talk?’ And his response was, ‘No, we don’t need to, because I don’t believe that stuff any more.’ ”

“Now, as a teacher, that’s the kind of story you want to hear,” Chase says. “That’s a piece of work I am proud of.”

The NEA’s defeat last summer of the outlines of a merger agreement with the 1 million-member AFT was a big disappointment to Chase, who put “a lot of time and effort” into trying to bring about unity between the national organizations. Members of the AFT, in a largely symbolic vote, later approved the merger guidelines.

From the moment the “principles of unity” went down to defeat, Chase talked about the NEA as a family that could honestly disagree about an important issue. A nearly unanimous board of directors this spring approved a set of guidelines that will permit state affiliates of the two unions to merge, as those in Minnesota have already done. Delegates still must approve related bylaw changes next month.

Even among the proposed merger’s harshest critics, there appears to be no ill will toward Chase. “Bob is very bright,” says Phil Rumore, the president of the Buffalo (N.Y.) Federation of Teachers, who opposed both the switch on peer review and the merger principles. “He understands things quickly, but I think that he is so desirous of moving on a certain path sometimes that he doesn’t step back and see the big picture.”

Haisman of Illinois, another leader of the anti-merger states, stresses that the issue was never personal.

“I’ll be honest. There were hard feelings and times when we didn’t like Bob and he didn’t like us, but in a participatory democracy, the whole idea is you get over those things and come back together,” he says. “It was tough for him to hold out an olive branch and act in a conciliatory manner, but he did.”

Clearly, the unions won’t merge under Chase’s leadership. Under NEA rules, he is permitted to serve one more three-year term. Current plans call for the unions to start talking about the process of negotiating another merger agreement--but not the substantive details--by the end of this summer.

So Chase plans to stick with his agenda, working away in dozens of airplanes and anonymous hotel rooms. His task is to try to reshape an organization that resembles the proverbial battleship whose midcourse corrections are excruciatingly slow.

But Chase shows few outward signs of frustration.

“Sometimes I pinch myself because of the experiences I’ve had,” he says. “I’m very grateful. The travel, getting to meet very interesting people, being in a position where I can make a difference.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 23, 1999 edition of Education Week as New Unionboss