The potential consequences of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Janus v.American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31 loom large here at the National Education Association’s annual convention.
Delegates are very much aware that their teachers’ union is facing serious revenue and membership declines, now that “agency” or “fair share” fees are prohibited, and teachers must affirmatively opt into the union rather than opt out. The NEA is expecting a nearly 14 percent membership loss and a $50 million budget reduction over the next two years.
NEA President Lily Eskelsen García sat down with Education Week to talk about how the nation’s largest teachers’ union is bracing for the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision, and how she believes the union will regain its strength. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
After Janus, how do you see the NEA repositioning itself?
We are coming into this preparing on two fronts. ... What [union opponents] did when they got [the Michigan] state legislature to do away with those fair-share fees [in 2012], they parachuted in people to knock on doors, put fliers in your mailbox, emails—"Good news, members, you now get all those services for free. Let me show you how to drop your membership.” They had a full-on attack on our members, and they used fair-share fees for the pretext. That’s exactly what’s happening now, in Washington state, in California, in Maryland, in New Jersey. It is a multi-million-dollar “drop your membership” campaign. We have to be prepared.
Knowing that’s happening now, we are bringing a budget to our members that cuts $28 million out of the budget. We’re going to do a lot more with electronic meetings. We’re not going to publish as much as we’ve published before, we’re going to put things online. We’re going to cancel some of our conferences. And what we’re going to do is fund the Defense Against the Dark Arts for the drop campaigns. We’re going to put money in places that will help our affiliates fight those things.
On the other side, we knew this was coming. There was no reason to think that Justice [Neil] Gorsuch was all of a sudden going to be a friend to working people and agree with Abood [the precedent that established agency fees]. Since Friedrichs [the 2016 Supreme Court case on the same issue that deadlocked 4-4 after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia], we’ve been doing membership drives of a very different nature all over the country, in all of our affiliates—person-to-person, human contact, “Here’s why I belong to the union; here’s why I’m proud of what we’re doing.” What we found out is even our own members who are loyal members didn’t know what we were doing in the social-justice arena, didn’t know what we were doing in terms of poverty or racial justice.
Especially these new folks coming in, ... those brand-new teachers, [union opponents are] going to try to convince them, “You know, you don’t need a union.” We’re already reaching out to new folks on college campuses so they know who we are and what our work is. And we’re already seeing the impact of doing that.
The budget projects about a 14 percent membership loss over two years. Do you see that as a temporary setback and that NEA will recoup those members, or do you see the union becoming leaner going forward?
What we saw in Michigan was a precipitous drop, especially with the new people coming in that have no idea what a union does, and they’re getting all of this information from Koch-funded organizations [i.e., those backed by anti-union billionaire brothers, Charles and David Koch] about why you shouldn’t join. ... Michigan Education Association was not prepared to bring in their own voice to those new folks. So we anticipate that, and we are preparing for that drop. But we also know what happens when you have your own campaign to let people know who you are and what you’re doing and why they should join—it goes up.
Our greatest membership growth [has been] in our right-to-work-for-less states [i.e., those right-to-work states where teachers have recently protested low pay]—West Virginia; Arizona’s up 2,000 members after their march; Oklahoma. People ... went, “Wait a minute. When we really let our voices be heard, and we came together, people listened to us. The public was appalled to hear what we made. They had no idea we were paying for our students’ supplies because we didn’t have money in our budget for that.” They made some noise, they got folks listening.
You’re not going to have marches like that every year—it can’t become our new normal. But what it instilled in those folks, whether they are members or not, [is the power of] collective action. None of us have the power to just stand on the street corner and shout what you need. The collective action means the governor listened to us, parents supported us, and we looked around and said, “We’re in this together.” We know that it is impacting states that never had fair-share [fees], and they’re growing [their membership].
When you actually get people together, and they see each other and they hear each other, they don’t go back, they go forward. And forward is growing your collective voice. Forward is your union.
So you think when people see what it’s like to not have a strong union, the membership loss will reverse course?
Exactly. In those states like West Virginia and Arizona, where folks looked around and said, “It’s been bad for so long and we haven’t joined; we haven’t been a part of the union"—that’s why 2,000 educators in Arizona said, “Sign me up. You’re right, this is the only way we move forward to something better.”
[Editorial note: As Education Week has reported, most of the recent labor actions were led by rank-and-file teachers, with the unions playing a supporting role.]
We will prepare for the worst, and we will prepare for the best simultaneously, because what we didn’t cut out of that budget was the human-to-human contact, the information with members and potential members. There are no more nonmembers, there are only potential members.
Now there are dozens of teachers running for office across the country. What do you make of that?
It’s so exciting. ... Folks are saying, “I’m tired of banging on the legislators’ door. I want to be the legislator, somebody can bang on my door.” We’ve got plenty of business people, we have plenty of rich people, we have plenty of lawyers, ... why not have somebody with that common sense community grounding that a school teacher would have?
So whether they’re running for school board, ... state legislature, we’ve got a couple of Congressional candidates, county commissioners .... We’ve got a whole lot of our own members, and we put together See Educators Run, which is a program where we train folks. Here’s what you need in a campaign team, here’s how you do fundraising, here’s what you need to watch out for, the laws you need to follow, here’s how you organize your volunteers to do a phone bank or to knock on doors.
There are so many ways we can show our power. I had somebody on a NPR show—it was a call-in show—and she said, “The problem with NEA is you’re too political, you should get out of politics.” Hello! In my head, as a 6th grade teacher who had 39 kids [in my classroom], get out of politics means be quiet and sit down and let someone else decide who those political leaders will be, who decided it’s OK for you to have 39 kids. ... These are political decisions.
We are a political society. The responsibility to say, I would like to serve my country as a candidate, or I need to find out where these candidates stand on the issues that matter me, and I need to come together and make decisions on whether or not we want to collectively help a candidate—how is that bad? How is that not the most profound patriotic act that anyone could have? It just still shocks me that saying getting involved in our political process is something that teachers should silence themselves over. Oh no, no no, no, no.
Education Week is tracking the teachers running, and we haven’t seen anything like this before.
It’s a new phenomenon. It’s part of this process of being woke and not taking things for granted. Now folks are not taking their unions for granted.
A lot of those fee-payers, we’re not taking it for granted that they won’t be our future members. We’re actually sitting down, one fee-payer at a time, going, “On this day, you stopped paying fees. You’re still going to be in the collective-bargaining group, but we need you to be a member. What would it take to have you be a member? Because other people are paying for that service, and we need you to be a member not just to pay for that service, but to be a part of that greater voice.” And a lot of them have already flipped to being full members.
Image: Eskelsen García speaks in May, by Patrick Ryan/NEA. Courtesy of the National Education Association. All rights reserved.
More Q&As on the Janus case:
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.