Teaching Profession

The NEA Faces an Unexpected Labor Adversary—Its Own Staff Union

By Brooke Schultz & Stephen Sawchuk — June 20, 2024 3 min read
Staff of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, strike outside the organization's building in Washington on June 20, 2024. The staff union alleges that the NEA violated labor law.
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Staff for the nation’s largest teachers’ union picketed at the organization’s Washington headquarters Thursday, striking for the first time in decades over what they say are unfair labor practices.

Outside of the National Education Association’s building on the city’s busy 16th Street thoroughfare, staff members marched with signs reading “Uphold union values” and “NEA: practice what you preach.” Other staffers made runs supplying snacks and water in the sweltering heat; staffers had organized shifts to keep the strike on pace until 5 p.m.

The one-day work stoppage comes ahead of the NEA’s upcoming Representative Assembly, which will draw thousands of union members to Philadelphia over the Fourth of July weekend to vote on the union’s budget and priorities for 2024-25.

It is rare that disagreements between the union and its own staff rise to a strike—in part because of the public relations nightmare it presents—and it’s the first time NEA union staff have walked off the job in 50 years.

NEA Staff Organization President Robin McLean said the national teachers’ union was failing to protect its own staff and follow labor law. The organization filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board earlier this week, alleging that a manager physically assaulted a staffer and later retaliated after the staff member reported the assault. It also claimed the NEA has unilaterally changed working conditions without bargaining them.

“NEA’s actions shock the conscience, and NEA members should question how NEA lives up to its union values at its headquarters,” McLean said in a statement.

A spokesperson for the NEA said that it “is fully committed to and respects the bargaining process.” It rejected the staff’s accusations of unfair practices, saying it had not been notified or cited by the National Labor Relations Board for the staff organization’s allegations.

Typically, when the NLRB receives a charge of an unfair labor practice, its agents gather evidence and take statements from the parties, which can take months. An upheld charge can result in a settlement, or a complaint adjudicated by an administrative law judge. The labor relations board did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Staff from the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, protest outside the organization's building in Washington, D.C., on June 20, 2024.

“NEA has engaged in negotiations in good faith, and continues to apply a solutions-based approach to resolve any outstanding issues in a manner that addresses articulated priorities of NEASO while also balancing the strategic priorities of NEA and its members,” the NEA said in a statement.

The union employs about 500 staff members at its headquarters; about 350 are NEASO members, a staff union spokesperson said. NEASO is one of three bargaining units at NEA. The walkout covered employees working in three of the union’s internal divisions: communications, conference and facilities management, and the center for professional excellence, which handles issues like teacher quality.

Tensions within the union include wages and discipline

It’s not the first time negotiations between the national union and its staff members have reached a boiling point. The staff organization has voted several times in recent years to authorize a strike. In the most recent vote, in April, 97 percent of the staff bargaining unit voted to authorize one, a spokesperson for the staff union said.

A strike authorization is a step towards an actual strike, though this is the first time the union has stopped work after its vote since 1971.

The staff organization’s contract, which is renewed every three years, expired at the end of May. It covers measures like salaries, health care benefits, retirement policy, and healthy working environments.

The one-day stoppage is limited to NEASO’s claim of unfair labor practices—it does not directly concern negotiations over the expired contract. But the two issues are linked: The contract contained a labor peace clause preventing work stoppages, which is no longer in force until a new contract is inked, NEASO representatives said.

Another expired clause gave managers latitude over working conditions, such as how offices are assigned; that is no longer in force, either, and it’s the basis of the NEASO’s claim that the union is violating labor law by failing to bargain over material changes in working conditions, a spokesperson said.

The staff organization declined to extend the current contract while it negotiated its next, according to the NEA.

Sticking points in contract negotiations, representatives of the staff union say, include wages, working conditions, and discipline.

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Assistant Managing Editor Stephen Sawchuk reported from Washington.

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