At the nation’s largest democratic assembly, thousands of educators debated such white-hot social issues as abortion and reparations, protested immigration policies, and, above all, pledged to defeat President Donald Trump in the 2020 election.
About 6,200 union delegates were boisterous in their commitment to social and racial justice during the National Education Association’s four-day Representative Assembly here over the Fourth of July holiday, passing several measures that seemed to move the union in an even more progressive direction.
And they spent little time discussing the aftermath of last summer’s U.S. Supreme Court decision that made it easier for teachers to leave—or not join—their union. The decision has led to membership and revenue losses, though not to the extent that was projected. Union leadership seemed more focused on the presidential election than on the impact of the Supreme Court decision—though there were signs that membership remains a concern for the union, including when, in a somewhat surprising move, delegates voted to allow noneducators to join the NEA.
This year’s Representative Assembly emphasized the NEA’s continued focus on straight politics, beyond the traditional bread-and-butter workforce issues. After about 18 months of large-scale teacher activism across the country, experts say educators are fired up and eager to be more politically engaged.
“We’re generally getting into a more polarizing political time,” said Jon Shelton, an associate professor of democracy and justice studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, who did not attend the convention. “I think what’s happening with NEA [delegates and leaders] ... is sort of mirroring what’s happening with the larger political process.”
On the first day of the annual convention, hundreds of educators marched in protest to a nearby facility for immigrant youths. Hours before, delegates overwhelmingly passed a new business item—submitted by the NEA’s board of directors—that calls on the U.S. government “to address the human-rights violations for which it is responsible in detention centers across the country.” The resolution pledges NEA’s support for litigation and legislation that protect immigrant families.
The next day, 10 Democratic presidential candidates answered questions from educators, with many pledging to raise teacher pay and bring back respect to the teaching profession. The union will likely make an endorsement sometime next spring, said NEA President Lily Eskelsen García in an interview.
Last time, the NEA endorsed Hillary Clinton in fall 2015, angering many delegates who wanted more input into the selection. This go around, the NEA has beefed up its endorsement process.
One delegate, García said, told her: “Lily, there’s a lot of power in this room, but there’s a lot of responsibility. … The people in this room are going to help elect the next president of the United States. We’ve got to do this carefully. And we’ve got to do this right.”
Indeed, delegates brought forth a spate of new business items meant to cement their stances on issues that have already emerged in the presidential campaign, from abortion to charter schools to racial justice and reparations. New business items, which are submitted by at least 50 delegates and then debated by the larger group, direct the NEA to do something for a year.
After one notable debate, delegates passed a measure that said the NEA “stands on the fundamental right to abortion”—a stronger stance than the union had ever before taken. A number of delegates expressed concern about taking a clear position on the charged issue, with some saying the measure could cause educators who are against abortion to leave the NEA. One delegate said she thought the union should stick to “teacher things.”
“It’s not especially surprising to see some resolutions like this [now], particularly given the state of politics,” UW-Green Bay’s Shelton said. “The teaching profession is one that’s a large majority of female members, and I think a lot of folks feel threatened by the spate of anti-choice rulings.”
Shelton said he didn’t think politically charged resolutions like that on abortion would affect membership.
“The primary way that most people engage in their union is locally, and the average rank-and-file member may pay attention to some of these resolutions, but there are tons of them,” he said. “I doubt that’s going to be the thing that makes or breaks whether a significant amount of people are members of the union or not.”
Last June, the Supreme Court ruled in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31 that teachers do not have to pay “agency” or “fair share” fees if they’re not union members. Teachers who disagree with their union can now cut ties completely, while still being represented in collective bargaining.
The decision affects teachers in about half the states—the rest already had laws prohibiting unions from charging agency fees. Union officials and outside experts expected many members to drop out, since the fees were usually not much cheaper than a full membership, and teachers often kicked in the extra dollars to become full members.
In addition to losing 88,000 agency-fee payers, the NEA did see initial membership declines. But a projected loss of more than 10 percent from 2018 to 2020 did not entirely materialize, according to the union’s modified budget.
NEA has budgeted for 2.29 million full-time equivalent members in 2019-20, instead of the anticipated 2.11 million. But before the decision, NEA had recorded 2.45 million full-time equivalents in 2017-18, although that figure included agency-fee payers. (In total, the NEA has about 3 million members, but many of them are part-time teachers. For purposes of the budget, NEA just counts full-time equivalents, which include teachers, education support professionals, and retirees.)
Experts have attributed the membership numbers to several reasons: The unions have spent months, even before the Supreme Court decision, asking members to “recommit” to their unions. A wave of teacher strikes, partly organized by the unions, has incentivized teachers to join. And despite informational campaigns funded by anti-union sources, at least one survey found some teachers aren’t aware of their rights to leave the union or what will happen if they do.
Another issue: Ending union membership can be tricky. Some unions have time-limited windows as short as a few days in which teachers can opt out of membership payroll deductions. Several lawsuits have been filed on this issue.
A New Category of Members
At the NEA’s Representative Assembly, delegates voted to create a new category of membership, which could be a way for the union to recoup some of the losses it’s already seen. Nearly 70 percent of delegates voted to amend the union’s constitution to open up membership to noneducator “community allies.” The amendment, which had failed several times in the past, needed a two-thirds majority to pass.
The community allies will not be able to vote, nominate candidates for elected office, or hold governance positions within the union. They will, however, be able to donate to the NEA’s political action committee, something only members are able to do. And the move will allow union leaders to communicate directly with the community allies, particularly in regards to political advocacy, in channels reserved for members.
Community allies, who won’t receive all the same benefits of other members, will pay $25 in dues. Several delegates said this change will allow the NEA to harness the support of parents and community members who showed up during teacher strikes and demonstrations.
Delegates also considered, but voted down, a business item that would have required the NEA to demand that all candidates seeking a political endorsement “publicly state their opposition to charter school expansion.”
During the debate over that issue, many members pointed out that NEA represents an increasing number of charter school teachers. (There are about 219,000 charter school teachers nationally, compared with 3.1 million teachers in traditional public schools. Only 11 percent of charter schools across the country are unionized.) Teachers’ unions have been eyeing charter schools as opportunities to counter membership losses.
“With the attack on unions today, the last thing we need to do is run off our members in charter schools,” one delegate said.
A ‘Progressive Direction’
While many debates during the gathering were heated, some delegates said they have noticed a shift in how their peers discuss racial and social justice.
“I’ve been going to [Representative Assemblies] for about three, four years now, and there’s always been some type of pushback with some of the racial issues, but I feel like ... every year, it gets a bit less,” said delegate Kumar Rashad, a teacher from Louisville, Ky. “We’re moving [in a] progressive ... direction.”
This year, delegates passed two measures in support of reparations for the descendants of enslaved Africans in the United States. They also passed a new business item that directs the NEA to incorporate the concept of “white fragility” into union trainings and staff development, literature, and other communications. White fragility is a concept explaining why many white people are reluctant to talk about racism.
Delegate Ruth Luevand, a teacher from San Dimas, Calif., introduced the measure. A couple years ago, she said she had proposed a similar new business item about white supremacy. That measure failed.
This time, some delegates were concerned about the language in the item, worrying that it implied that “all white people are the issue.” But many other delegates were in support of the effort to address unconscious biases head on.
“Over the last few years, I believe NEA is becoming more open to the conversation of race and social justice, because our schools are becoming more diversified,” Luevand said. “This is not meant to exclude anyone; we’re not asking anyone to step out, we’re asking everyone to step in.”
And according to the member who’s expected to be the union’s next president, the NEA will continue to be vocal about social and racial justice—and about politics.
“Those who say we have no business being in politics could not be more wrong,” said Becky Pringle, the NEA’s vice president, and a self-described “social justice warrior.”
Eskelsen García will end her second and last term next fall. So far, as is common in the NEA, Pringle is running to replace her unopposed.
A version of this article appeared in the July 17, 2019 edition of Education Week as Teachers’ Union Delegates Focus on Politics, Social Justice