Teachers want unions to focus more on professional needs, but are they listening?

The National Education Association (NEA)—the country’s largest and arguably most powerful teachers’ union—held its annual meeting and representative assembly in Minneapolis from June 30 to July 5.

Thousands of delegates and affiliates were welcomed to the Twin Cities by billboards celebrating the Supreme Court’s Janus v. AFSCME decision that freed teachers and all other public employees from forced union fees as a condition of employment.

At the convention, NEA members asked a number of questions about what the High Court’s ruling means for existing union members and fee payers. In response, NEA drafted an FAQs document to “explain” the decision. One question and answer particularly stood out to me:

Given Janus, why should my union do anything at all for feepayers?

Feepayers are potential members. Like anyone else, the union should treat feepayers with respect, engage them to help them understand how educators and students will be better off if everyone does their part. Collectively, we are stronger than any one of us as individuals.

It took a gun-to-their-head Supreme Court case for public sector unions to shift from the disparaging “freeloader” claims to more respectful messaging. However, unions need to do more than eliminate name-calling to convince public employees their services are worth paying for.

Minnesota educators have shared with me they want their union to focus more on meeting their professional needs and less on political activity. This sentiment was echoed in a recent Thinking Minnesota Poll: 50 percent of registered Minnesota voters believe the state’s teachers’ union Education Minnesota (affiliated with NEA) is “too political” (31 percent total disagree) and 53 percent believe the union “spends too much money supporting political agendas and candidates” (27 percent total disagree).

Thanks to Janus, public sector unions have an opportunity to reboot for the better, but they are faced with a choice: Will they continue prioritizing political objectives unrelated to meeting the needs of their members? Or will they be more attentive and responsive to professional interests?

After reading through the new business items adopted during the 2018 NEA convention, it appears professional needs are still drowning in a political maelstrom. Here are a few noteworthy ones.

New Business Item 120

The NEA RA directs NEA to support, in ways it finds appropriate and within the budget, the removal of “R-skins, Braves, Indians, and Warriors” mascots and the imagery associated with each from public schools.

New Business Item 90

Given NEA’s policy of fighting racism, and the current state of racial affairs within this great nation, it is imperative that NEA actively support and promote, using existing resources, such as Teaching Tolerance, Facing History and Ourselves, and Rethinking Schools, that describe and deconstruct the systemic proliferation of a White supremacy culture and its constituent elements of White privilege and institutional racism, in order to create equitable outcomes for people of all colors, languages, and ethnic backgrounds. Additionally, the NEA will encourage its affiliates to do the same.

New Business Item 73

NEA condemns the Supreme Court decision upholding Trump’s Muslim ban and demands its reversal as soon as possible.

The Supreme Court ruling upholding Trump’s Muslim travel ban is discriminatory against Muslims, upholding an authoritarian presidency where the veneer of “national security” can justify racism and discrimination. This decision echoes the Court’s decision upholding the internment of Japanese Americans.

New Business Item 38

NEA will support a strategy of postponing confirmation of a Supreme Court justice until after the mid-term election, holding Congress to the same standards set forth by the Senate after the death of Antonin Scalia in 2016.

New Business Item 36

NEA shall, using existing digital media, post a list of known individuals with businesses who are committed to refusing services to same-sex couples and/or LGBTQ individuals. NEA can access a list of these individuals and their businesses from organizations such as THINKPROGRESS (thinkprogress.org), Southern Poverty Law Center, and Human Rights Campaign, and share it with all state and local affiliates on nea.org.

New Business Item 4

NEA will promote the Black Lives Matter Week of Action in schools during Black History month in 2019, using existing communication resources, specifically calling for clear efforts to demonstrate support for the three demands of the BLM Week of Action in schools.

What do these new business items have to do with the day-to-day needs and challenges of teachers in the classroom? Even if you agree with these union declarations, there are more pressing matters facing teachers today. This is why there will be teachers who choose to exercise their right to opt-out of the union. For some, it means getting the attention of the union in hopes of reforming it. For others, it is simply walking away from a union that does not make their professional needs a priority.