Teachers Find Alternatives to National Unions

Published July 1, 1999

Although the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers together have more than 3 million members, they are not the only associations available to schoolteachers.

Another 250,000 teachers in 14 states belong to neither national labor union, but instead are members of growing local teacher associations that offer an alternative to the NEA and AFT. These independent associations provide insurance and legal protection for teachers at one-third to one-quarter of the cost of belonging to a union. None of the dues is used for political action committees.

The independent associations in Georgia, Missouri, and Texas have grown larger than the union affiliate in those states. For example, the Professional Association of Georgia Educators boasts a membership of 46,000, versus 32,000 in the Georgia NEA affiliate. At the national level, membership in the five-year-old Association of American Educators (AAE) already has grown to over 17,000 educators.

The AAE was formed, says executive director Gary Beckner, “to give independent teachers all across the U.S. a chance to have their voice heard at the national level and to make it understood that the big labor unions don’t speak for all teachers.”

Most teachers are unaware of the existence of these independent groups. Even rarer is knowledge of those organizations that union expert Myron Lieberman terms Local Only Teacher Unions (LOTUs), which largely reject such national union policies as charging an agency fee to non-members or going on strike. The existence of these LOTUs was not an issue until 1975, when the NEA began to require unified local, state, and national memberships. In response, many locals–such as 10 of the 200 locals in Indiana–declared their independence.

LOTUs charge dues of $150 to $200 a year, far less than dues charged by locals affiliated with a state and national group, which may total $600 or more. In addition, LOTU dues do not increase automatically each year. In some cases, LOTU dues have remained unchanged for years as the groups have found cost-effective ways to provide services without the need for highly paid state or national staff. The 300-member Kent Education Association in Ohio, for example, has maintained dues at $150 a year for many years while establishing a legal defense reserve fund and renting computer services from Kent State University as needed. By contrast, NEA and state affiliate research specialists may each be paid $100,000 or more a year, plus benefits.

“We get our members the old fashioned way: we earn them,” said Kent association president Donna Hess, representing a view not uncommon among the independents.

The largest LOTU, with some 2,000 members, is Ohio’s Akron Education Association, which became one of the first independents a year after the NEA requirements went into effect. With just two full-time officers, the group costs members less than $200 a year in dues. Unlike most LOTUs, the group charges non-members an agency fee, and it has gone on strike. “A strong local has little need for the clout of the state and national union, and the clout of the state and national union can do little to help a weak local,” said Akron association president Bill Seigferth.

According to Lieberman, those who object to unified membership–having to belong to a state and national group in order to join a local–are not the only teacher constituency for autonomous locals. Others include:

  • teachers who object to unions;
  • teachers who don’t want to affiliate with the AFL_CIO;
  • teachers who do not want to be represented by a group that also represents support staff;
  • teachers who object to the social and/or political agendas of the NEA and AFT;
  • teachers who want to save money on dues; and
  • teachers who believe high dues are not necessary to have an effective organization.

Lieberman believes that while “non_union teacher organizations will not be a significant presence unless they embrace collective bargaining or unless the teacher bargaining laws are repealed or amended, local only teacher unions do not depend on such repeal or amendment, an enormously important strategic consideration.”

For more information …

Teachers who want to know more about local teacher associations, or who are interested in establishing one, may contact Myron Lieberman at the Education Policy Institute, 4401-A Connecticut Avenue NW, Box 294, Washington, DC 20008, phone 202/244_7535. Lieberman, who is chairman of the Institute, has extensive experience in teacher contract negotiations and union organizing. He was a candidate for AFT president in the 1960s and is a life member of the NEA, which has given him awards for his services.