Teaching Profession

Old NEA Staff Could Impede New Unionism

By Ann Bradley — October 08, 1997 8 min read

The sight of striking employees walking a picket line is usually associated with blue-collar workers--or, in the past three decades, perhaps teachers. But that was decidedly not the case when members of the staff unions of the Ohio Education Association walked off the job last month.

Instead, a well-heeled crowd demonstrated outside the union’s downtown Columbus headquarters. Some of the 110 members of the Professional Staff Union--protesting what they called attempts by management to “take back” pension and health benefits, among other issues--earn more than $80,000 a year in salary alone. The Ohio union also reports average annual spending of $25,000 per employee on benefits.

The union’s employees, who negotiate contracts for local affiliates, file grievances, represent teachers in arbitrations, and work on political campaigns, aren’t often in the limelight. Yet they conduct much of the core business of the state and local affiliates of the National Education Association.

Some now view these labor and political operatives as potential impediments to NEA President Bob Chase’s “new unionism.” And staff members are maneuvering to protect themselves in the event of a merger of the two national teachers’ unions.

The four-week strike in Ohio, and a three-week walkout by union staff members in Louisiana last month, came amid increased scrutiny of union payrolls by critics. They claim that the average classroom teacher doesn’t realize that her dues are supporting employees with six figure salaries.

Aside from salaries, some leaders within the NEA are expressing displeasure with the union’s longtime staff structure, complaining that the association has built an entrenched internal bureaucracy.

Although the Ohio strike was primarily over traditional issues of wages, benefits, and working conditions, the Professional Staff Union also was concerned about protecting its members in the event of a merger between the 2.3 million-member NEA and the 940,000-member American Federation of Teachers.

The dispute underscored the fact that issues relating to the union’s own employees, rather than to its members, are some of the thorniest questions in the ongoing merger talks.

Promoting ‘Status Quo’?

Most of the members of the Professional Staff Union are “UniServ directors.” The NEA established the UniServ program in 1970 to provide highly trained employees to assist teachers in bargaining over contracts. The national association will spend $41.4 million out of a budget of nearly $200 million this year on the program, which helps states pay for the positions.

In contrast, the AFT hewed to a more traditional union model, with elected officers conducting negotiations. Except in New York state, the AFT has no parallel to the UniServ program.

John Grossman, the president of the Columbus Education Association and a self-described rebel within the NEA, said he believes the UniServ system has outlived its usefulness.

“I’m not sure this is a process or organization that has promoted the NEA and its affiliates to be innovative,” he said. “Quite the opposite. It has promoted the status quo, and in many cases, the status quo internally. It’s not conducive for the organization being in the place it needs to be, in an era when public education is endangered.”

Mr. Grossman’s local affiliate, the largest in the OEA, employs only three UniServ people--a consultant and two secretaries. The rest of its employees were hired locally and are paid salaries more in line with those earned by classroom teachers, he said. In Ohio, the average teacher earns $37,835 a year.

The Columbus president called the recent strike “an embarrassment” and said one contributing factor was a feeling among elected officials that staff members weren’t listening to them.

“The [staff] union had spoken out in direct opposition to the elected leadership of the OEA on a number of occasions,” he said. “That’s flatly wrong. It’s not their business.”

Charles J. Leberknight, a Uni-Serv director and the president of the Professional Staff Union in Ohio, called the assertion “a political perception that has nothing to do with reality.”

The majority of UniServ staffers, many of whom are now in their 50s, started their careers as classroom teachers, then served as elected union officers. Keith B. Geiger, the past president of the NEA, said that many cut their teeth on collective bargaining and processing grievances, as he did. “That was all I knew,” he said. “That was what I was paid to do. It wasn’t easy for me to realize that I had to shift and change.”

But as Mr. Chase, Mr. Geiger’s successor, pushes for a new view of unionism that also takes responsibility for the quality of teachers and teaching, these seasoned union hands will have to learn new tricks. Otherwise, Mr. Chase’s reforms may not go very far.

“I think that even the staff is beginning to realize that they have to be willing to look at change,” Mr. Geiger said. “But they’ll be one of the last to do it. The smart ones are saying, ‘This is not 1972.’”

Indeed, Roger Erskine, the executive director of the Seattle Education Association, is a UniServ director who has earned kudos nationwide for negotiating innovative contracts and working in close partnership with the district’s administration and business community.

A ‘Crack Force’

Coinciding this fall with the Ohio and Louisiana staff strikes was the release of a report detailing the salaries paid to NEA employees in selected states and at the union’s Washington headquarters.

The report was prepared by Mike Antonucci, who runs a business out of Carmichael, Calif., called the Education Intelligence Agency. A critic of the teachers’ unions, Mr. Antonucci conducts education research on a contract basis and publishes a weekly news bulletin that is distributed electronically.

His analysis of the compensation and benefits of teachers’ union staff members argues that critics have been looking in the wrong place by focusing on the NEA’s well-documented political power.

“NEA’s real power lies in its strategy and tactics at the bargaining table,” he writes in the introduction. “And the source of its strategy and tactics is not its political leanings, or its vast membership, but its officers and staff--a crack force of negotiators, activists, and union organizers who know how to get their way.”

Mr. Antonucci asserts that few classroom teachers know that their dues are paying for such generous wages and benefits.

Myron Lieberman, a former union negotiator turned antagonist, makes the same argument in his new book, The Teacher Unions: How the NEA and AFT Sabotage Reform and Hold Students, Parents, Teachers, and Taxpayers Hostage to Bureaucracy, published this fall by the Free Press.

Mr. Lieberman calls for changes in state legislation to require public-sector unions to disclose as much information as those in the private sector.

But union officials dispute the contention that teachers don’t know what they’re paying for. They point out that union budgets are approved by elected boards of directors.

In Pennsylvania, Mr. Antonucci found that the Pennsylvania State Education Association, with 140,467 members, pays 59 of its 301 employees more than $100,000 in gross salary, fringe benefits, and expenses.

Wythe Keever, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania union, said the state’s teachers get a good deal for the approximately $300 in annual dues they pay to the state. UniServ directors, he said, have to know state and federal laws, deal with grievances and arbitrations, understand retirement issues, and sometimes represent union members in litigation. They also work on political campaigns.

“We’re worth what we get paid,” Mr. Keever said. “We’re also very fortunate to work for members who treat their staff the way they would like to be treated.”

Staff Talks

The strike in Ohio also illuminated the staff anxiety over the possibility that the two national teachers’ unions will merge. The organizations have set next summer as a deadline for reaching a decision.

While merger wasn’t a top issue in the 27-day strike, which ended Sept. 29, the Professional Staff Union sought guarantees during negotiations that its members’ contractual and pension rights would be protected in the event of a merger.

“What we wanted was a commitment that there would be no merger unless that was ensured,” Mr. Leberknight said. “We got as close as we could get to that.”

Merger also came up in Louisiana, where the 19 members of the Louisiana State Staff Organization were on strike for three weeks last month.

Mary Washington, the president of the 21,000-member Lousiana Education Association, said the union sought and received assurances that it would be the “exclusive bargaining agent” for union staff members if the two unions join forces in the state.

Union officials say that each state affiliate will have to work out its own merger agreements, in addition to the arrangements hammered out at the national level.

“What the staff will look like is a very, very big and integral part of those talks,” Mr. Geiger said of the ongoing merger discussions.

The unions that represent the AFT and NEA staffs also have been meeting periodically in Washington during the past two years to discuss the ramifications of a merger. The National Staff Organization, the umbrella group for the NEA staff unions, has 4,500 members, including UniServ directors, employees at the national headquarters, and secretarial workers.

In contrast, the American Federation of Teachers Staff Union has 118 members, 39 of whom are national representatives who travel the country, organizing campaigns and working on contract negotiations as needed.

Solomon Smith, the president of the AFT’s staff union, said his organization has been assured there will be no loss of jobs after a merger. “After all,” he said, “we are a union.”

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