Nation’s Largest Teachers Union Sees Unprecedented Membership Decline

Published May 26, 2012

The nation’s largest teachers union experienced an unprecedented decline in membership last year, a development with potentially large impacts on classrooms and state politics.

The Education Intelligence Agency’s Mike Antonucci, a longtime independent reporter with multiple union sources, reports a net loss for the National Education Association of more than 87,000 active and retired members. This leaves the NEA with nearly 3 percent fewer dues-payers in 2012 than in 2011. The trend is occurring across most of the nation.

“There are at least 40 state affiliates that have lost members from the past year,” Antonucci said.

NEA membership peaked in 2009 at more than 3.2 million. After a modest decline in 2010, EIA estimates the latest plunge represents a loss of $11 million in dues revenue. National teachers’ union leaders are faced with the prospect of laying off their own unionized employees.

“[Unions] make a lot of money, but they’re not practiced at cutting costs. Even the loss of a little money in the overall scheme is a big deal,” said Antonucci. “They’ve never had to do this before, so anything is possible.”

Losing Incentives
Prominent among the causes of this decline are a series of state-level reforms—most conspicuously in Wisconsin and Tennessee—that weakened collective bargaining privileges for government employees.

“In some states you’ve seen declines where members are no longer required to be members,” said education analyst RiShawn Biddle.

Many teachers are attracted to local unions because of the negotiated protections they provide, said Hoover Institution senior fellow Terry Moe.

“Many teachers would prefer not to join their state union, and many more would prefer not to join their national,” he said.

With restrictions on the union’s capacity to serve as exclusive bargaining agents and to collect involuntary fees, “many teachers feel they have no incentive to belong to the union anymore,” Moe said.  

Questioning the Costs
Even without Wisconsin-style reforms, however, Professional Association of Colorado Educators membership director Tim Farmer says teachers in his state are growing more disenchanted with even the local union.

“Teachers are realizing that collective bargaining and being in a union is not as big a factor in determining salary and benefits as they’ve been led to believe,” he said.

Affiliated with the national non-union Association of American Educators, PACE offers many benefits similar to a union, absent bargaining and political activities, at a fraction of the price. PACE far lags the state’s NEA affiliate in membership but is gaining members.

“As I talk with teachers more and more are starting to question the return on their investment to the union,” said Farmer.

Impact from Layoffs
While claims of education cutbacks have been “overstated,” teacher layoffs are also driving union membership decline in many states, Moe said.

“I just don’t think there is any groundswell among teachers to leave unions,” he said.

Education budgets were largely shielded from the recent recession by large infusions of federal stimulus funds in 2009 and 2010.  

“What we’re seeing with teachers is basically what we should have been seeing two to three years ago,” Antonucci said. “They put off the day of reckoning.”

State-by-state NEA data is not yet available, but Antonucci said he expects states with mandatory unionism will show membership declines that correspond closely with employment attrition.

Downward Trend
Younger instructors with less career experience tend to view traditional unionism less favorably, Biddle said.

“They see that unions basically work to protect seniority regardless of a teacher’s quality,” he said.

Biddle predicts old-style education unions will continue their downward trend and succumb to major reforms within the next two decades.

But Antonucci believes the NEA could follow the example of declining private-sector labor groups. As they shed members, unions like the Teamsters redoubled efforts to influence legislators at the expense of recruitment.

“Over time, if they continually do that, they’ll lose more and more members because they’re not focused on recruitment,” he said. “Eventually the politicians will stop paying attention to them.”

Learn more:
Education Intelligence Agency, Intercepts blog, “NEA Membership Losses by Category,”

Image by William Murphy.