Teaching Profession

NEA Grows More Strategic About Membership

By Bess Keller — June 21, 2005 9 min read
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When the nation’s largest teachers’ union convenes in Los Angeles in a week and a half for its annual meeting, the membership news will ring happier than in 2004.

Then, the National Education Association’s count of active-teacher members was down for the first time in 18 years, according to union officials. But over the past year, that number has grown by about 20,000, according to Carmen Quesada, who guides membership strategy for the 2.8 million-member union.

The upturn is no accident. After relying heavily on the growth produced by more teachers coming into the profession, the national organization has hatched new plans in the past few years for building membership.

Union leaders see increasing the base as crucial, particularly in the current political climate, in which many of the NEA’s allies have lost power and its enemies have seized on the opportunity to strike deeper at the union’s clout.

“Any sort of decline—and I don’t see this as a fall-off-the-cliff decline—makes the unions feel vulnerable,” said Charles Kerchner, a teachers’ union expert at Claremont Graduate Center in California. “The NEA’s opponents have smelled blood and are emboldened to say things like, ‘We want to roll back collective bargaining.’ ”

Teachers in the classroom are the union’s backbone, though the NEA includes retired instructors, education students, and thousands of others playing supporting roles in schools. Unlike the other membership categories, working teachers pay top-dollar dues to the NEA and its 50 state affiliates. They also carry the most weight in public opinion.

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Chart: Slow Going

Lately, though, membership growth has flattened and, in important measure, been sustained by nonteachers. Mergers with American Federation of Teachers affiliates have also brought new members into the NEA fold, but without raising the total unionization of the teacher workforce.

The NEA gained about 38,000 active members this year over last, almost half of them support workers such as teachers’ aides, bus drivers, and cafeteria workers, according to Ms. Quesada.

Overall growth, which includes retired teachers and education students, dropped from more than 3 percent in 2001 to just over 1 percent in 2004, the last year for which the union provides figures.

“We did not have a membership loss overall,” Ms. Quesada pointed out. “And even among the active professional members, it was a relatively slight drop, as much the result of the financial situation around the country as anything else.”

Nonetheless, in the past three years, recruitment has emerged as an important theme in top NEA leaders’ calls to activists. It has also guided use of the organization’s resources.

That’s not exactly new.

“Membership always has been and always will be a big part of the dollars and time spent by the NEA,” said Keith B. Geiger, its president from 1989 to 1993, who now works for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

After all, a union’s political strength and thus its sway in the policy arena comes most fundamentally from its membership numbers—and the money they ante up.

But the emphasis on membership this time around has been paired with approaches that recognize a new era for organizing: get out more to the grassroots and identify specific situations in states, districts and schools that can be used to add members.

Bucking the Trend?

The urgency of the past few years, some observers of the union suggest, comes not only from the NEA’s stagnating numbers, but also from what its leaders saw when they surveyed the broader landscape a few years ago.

On the political front, a Republican president widely seen as unfriendly to the labor movement occupied the White House.

On the economic front, states faced hard fiscal times, driving down the demand for teachers and reducing the likelihood of pay hikes for them.

Both situations threatened, and continue to threaten, the ability of the unions to deliver on their agendas. The national political scene and the economic one thus sent the same get-recruiting message as the decades-long decline in American unionism.

Today, only about 13 percent of the workforce is unionized, down from more than a third in the 1950s. Losses in the private sector have been partially offset by gains among public workers. Teachers, in particular, are organized: almost nine out of 10 public school teachers are members of the NEA or the AFT.

But some observers wonder if the teachers’ unions are eventually bound for the same direction as their industrial counterparts.

At the least, said Michael Leeds, a labor economist at Temple University in Philadelphia, keeping union numbers up will be difficult.

“I don’t see an obvious strategy for them to follow because there are much larger forces at work that they don’t have direct control over,” he said, citing the fiscal pressures on state and local governments that come from national tax-cutting and revenue-shifting policies.

“I really see some fairly tough times ahead for state and local government workers and for teachers’ unions in particular,” Mr. Leeds added.

But John Stocks, the deputy executive director of the NEA, said the union can fight, first of all, by building up the side of the organization that speaks to teachers’ professional concerns, be they improving practice or fewer demands from the school bureaucracy.

The organizers who go out to local affiliates under the NEA’s Uniserv program are getting more training on professional issues, though political advocacy and contract bargaining remain important parts of their jobs, Mr. Stocks said.

To drive home the importance of growth, the NEA two years ago launched a pilot program to move a dozen states toward higher numbers. All but Nevada are in the South or Southwest, regions that are resistant to unions.

The pilot, which put two dozen “organizing specialists” into the field, has shown modest success, according to the NEA’s statistics. Last year, it was broadened into the “national membership strategy,” headed by Ms. Quesada.

Sometimes, Ms. Quesada said, state affiliates express surprise when she calls them to discuss membership gains or losses. “ ‘Nobody ever called me one way or another before,’ ” she said one official of a heavyweight state affiliate told her.

The new program targets the 20 state affiliates that have not signed up at least 75 percent of working public school teachers. It provides them with “fairly extensive financial and staffing assistance,” according to Ms. Quesada.

But the program will also help at least 10 additional affiliates that meet the 75 percent threshold and seek to add more college instructors, for instance, or go after early-childhood teachers.

Recruiting is Local

Despite impetus from the national organization, NEA officials are the first to acknowledge that there’s no such thing as recruiting from on high.

“It happens at the local level, person to person or at meetings in the school building,” said Charles D. Goodmacher, who works on organizational development for the 8,000-member NEA-New Mexico. And, he adds, it often happens around issues of school, district, or state concern.

In New Mexico, the NEA affiliate is telling teachers that a collective-bargaining law passed in 2003 under Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, makes it more important than ever to sign up. A weaker collective bargaining law expired in 1999.

For starters, say the organizers, the measure allows bargaining around “professional issues” for the first time, and the local unions need a show of strength to press that new power home. In districts where the union has not had the numbers to win collective bargaining, according to union officials, the opportunity lost is now costlier.

Officials of the New Mexico affiliate also point to their successful push for a state licensing system that has three tiers of expertise and links to increasing pay. “It’s been productive to speak to people, especially people who are getting the $5,000 raises this coming [school] year because of the new system, and tell them this wouldn’t have happened without the nea, and we need you to be part of it to sustain it,” Mr. Goodmacher said.

According to union figures, the New Mexico affiliate’s membership grew by about 5 percent from 2002 to 2004.

At the merged AFT-NEA local in Miami-Dade County, Fla., the organization underwent a major overhaul to stop the bleeding of members that had quickened with the 2003 ouster of longtime President Pat L. Tornillo, Jr. in a corruption scandal.

“We changed our entire focus from a centralized service organization to … one with a major focus on organizing at the building site around issues pertinent to that building,” said Tim Dedman, an NEA organizational specialist who was detailed to Miami about two years ago. The headquarters staff was cut from 70 to 50, and the number of employees assigned to visit schools was almost quadrupled—to 23. Whether the problem is an incompetent principal or lack of communication between teachers whose pupils have autism, Mr. Dedman said, the union wants to help solve it, particularly by working through union leaders at each school. “If we teach members the skills, we believe not only is that building stronger,” he said, “we believe the union becomes stronger.”

The union roll now includes about 16,000 members, up from 11,000 in fall 2003, Mr. Dedman said.

Launching a Beachhead

The South Carolina Education Association, which claimed about 10,000 members in 2004, toils in a state where two-thirds of the teachers belong neither to the union nor to the statewide teacher association that is its rival.

Richard Miller, the scea’s executive director, said his organization is poised to reap significant membership gains from both a new drive to offer members professional development and a three-year advocacy campaign in support of public education.

“We have a three-year track record [for advocacy] that nobody else can match,” Mr. Miller contended. The campaign was capped by the recent defeat of legislation pushed hard by Gov. Mark Sanford, a Republican, that would have given tax credits for private school tuition.

Mr. Miller said the union took the message that public schools are making progress to the grassroots with billboards, house parties, radio advertisements, and speaking engagements. At the same time, it has been piloting a curriculum-planning tool for teachers that will be the centerpiece of expanded professional-development offerings.

“We’re trying to focus on what our members identify as their unmet needs in professional areas,” Mr. Miller said.

But the retiring executive director of the independent Palmetto State Teachers Association, a nonunion group, points out that the union’s membership has declined over the years, while hers has grown to about 4,500 members in the 25 years since its founding.

In South Carolina, “it’s a hard job recruiting members,” said Elizabeth Gressette, the independent group’s executive director. But, she added, it’s even harder recruiting members to a union.

Teachers have told her many times, she said, “‘I’d never belong to a union.’”

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