Why do top teacher union officials, like National Education Association (NEA) President Reg Weaver, describe themselves as “classroom teachers” rather than union representatives? The annual Harris Poll provides a ready answer: Teachers are regarded by almost half of the American public as belonging to an occupation of “very great prestige,” whereas only 15 percent regard union leaders that way.
The teacher union has been so successful in downplaying its identity as a labor union that a survey of members of the Alabama Education Association in 2000 showed only 19 percent regarded the NEA as a union, with an overwhelming 77 percent saying it was “a professional association.”
The idea of putting teachers front and center in the presentation of the labor union’s viewpoints was one of three recommendations made in 1997 by the Kamber Group, which had been hired by the NEA to address union concerns that many Americans at that time considered the NEA “the number one obstacle to better public schools.”
The Kamber Group’s analysis and recommendations are discussed in one of the chapters in a new publication from the Olympia, Washington-based Evergreen Freedom Foundation (EFF). EFF reports many members of the Washington Education Association were unaware the association they had joined was a labor union.
“I was shocked to learn the Washington Education Association is not what it claims to be,” said Grant Pelesky, a fifth-grade teacher from Puyallup, Washington. “Rather than an association of professional educators, it is in fact nothing more than a labor union. Though I do not philosophically oppose labor unions, I do oppose being forced to be a member of one against my will.”
The NEA was founded as a professional association for school superintendents and teachers in the mid-1800s. In a battle for members with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in the 1960s, the NEA was transformed into a powerful labor union–a union made even more powerful by President John F. Kennedy, who signed an executive order lifting a long-standing ban on public employees organizing a labor union.
Now, with funds deducted directly from the paychecks of its 2.7 million members–and non-members, too–the NEA has an annual budget of more than $1 billion. As the EFF report points out, those interests are union interests, not the interests of parents and children. Former AFT President Albert Shanker once remarked, “When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.”
“The union’s lobbying efforts have very little to do with ensuring that excellent teachers are recruited and well compensated and that students are literate and ready for the world of work and citizenship,” writes EFF Executive Director Lynn Harsh in her introduction to the report.
EFF’s publication is designed to explain how the NEA has achieved its considerable influence over the operation of the nation’s public schools and how the union expects to maintain that sway. Suggestions for beginning to reduce union influence are provided for teachers who have religious objections to union policy and for teachers who want to become agency fee-payers.
George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].
For more information …
The July 2004 Evergreen Freedom Foundation publication by Marsha Richards and Lynn Harsh, “Barrier to Learning: How the National Education Association Prevents Students and Teachers from Achieving Academic and Professional Excellence,” is available online at http://www.heartland.org/Article.cfm?artId=15411.