During the National Education Association’s annual representative assembly in Minneapolis last week, delegates voted to support teacher strikes and other protests and set up a fund to support them.
Both actions came in the form of new business items, which are resolutions submitted by at least 50 delegates that direct the NEA to take action for one year. The first resolution urged the NEA to “build on the great teachers’ union victories” in several states this spring and “support a national campaign of labor action, including strike action where practicable” to improve working conditions for educators and save public services.
The second resolution was a bit more concrete—it directs the NEA to establish a voluntary membership donation of at least $3. The donation would establish a fund to support strikes or other statewide labor actions, such as a short-term work stoppage. This new business item, which will cost $1,250 to implement, asks for state and local affiliates to collect the donations and then transmit the funds to the NEA for disbursement when there is labor unrest.
“It’s important that we bolster our reserves and our resources now, and I think we’ve seen that the rank-and-file is prepared to ... support our sisters and brothers in other states,” said Clare Kelly, a teacher in Evanston, Ill., who, along with fellow delegate Trisha Connolly, drafted the new business item to set up a strike fund. “We will have the funds to really put solid support behind any strikes coming down the pipeline.”
It’s worth noting that some new business passed during the representative assemblies never gets implemented if NEA leaders decide it’s not practical or possible. Still, Kelly said that NEA leaders are supportive of setting up the fund. She said she is proposing, with leadership support, a bylaw amendment that would make the fund permanent. Delegates will vote on that amendment next year.
The two measures show the groundswell of support that remains among educators for labor actions to protest low pay and cuts to school funding. This spring, there were six statewide teacher strikes, walkouts, and large-scale demonstrations—West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Colorado, Arizona, and North Carolina. For the most part, teachers inked victories of varying degrees. Throughout the NEA representative assembly, delegates repeatedly referenced and cheered for those protests.
In an interview with Education Week, NEA President Lily Eskelen García said that the union’s role during the protests was to “channel that energy, that anger, that angst, and say, ‘You can’t just stand there and describe the problem. You have to say, and here’s the solution. Here’s what I need for my students for myself as a professional.’”
As Education Week reported, the walkouts and strikes started as a grassroots movement, with rookie rank-and-file teachers acting as organizers. For the most part, the teachers’ unions played a supporting role. But Eskelen García said the unions were key to negotiating with legislators.
“Look at Occupy Wall Street, that got a lot of press. For months, people camped out. It was powerful, and it sent a message, and where is it today? What changed because of Occupy Wall Street? They had no organization to contain that righteous anger and turn it into a piece of legislation,” she said. “If [teachers] didn’t have [their] union, it would have been a march, and then it would have been more frustration.”
More statewide work stoppages could be part of the fallout of the Supreme Court’s decision in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31. The justices ruled to prohibit “agency” or “fair share” fees, which unions have been charging to nonmembers in 22 states. The loss of those fees will weaken teachers’ unions, which will now lose both money and members.
Kelly said the Supreme Court decision inspired her to propose the new business item to set up a fund for future labor actions. The proposal’s passage, she said, “really demonstrated that the rank-and-file are not going to let Janus deter us from fighting to protect our collective bargaining rights.”
During the arguments in that case, union lawyers argued that losing agency fees would lead to more labor unrest. Among the states that experienced large-scale protests this spring, all but one already prohibited agency fees.
“If there is more unrest,” Eskelen García said, “it will come from our grassroots, and we will take that unrest, we will take that righteous anger, and we will turn it into something better for school kids and for the people who serve them.”
Image: Delegates at the 2018 NEA Representative Assembly rock out during a karaoke rendition of “We’re Not Gonna Take It"—the unofficial song of the spring’s teacher strikes. Courtesy of the National Education Association, all rights reserved.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.