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Van Roekel's Keynote Focuses on Organizing

"Plain and simple, you can't have a middle class without unions."

"I am asking you to organize like never before."

Those were two big lines by NEA President Dennis Van Roekel, who got his first crack at the keynote address just a few minutes ago. And frankly, for a few moments, I thought I had wondered into the wrong union's meeting.

The NEA has never exactly been fond of calling itself a union. It embraced collective bargaining somewhat later than its sister, the American Federation of Teachers. It has always clung to the refined description of itself as a professional organization compared with the AFT's proudly scrappy, streetwise celebration of the union label. It has been much more selective in who it will organize, in comparison with the AFT, which would unionize garden gnomes if it could.

Guess that's on the wane under Van Roekel, who underscored the theme with this line: "At 3.2- million members, we are the largest professional organization/labor union in America."

Behind the scenes, he's also been active in discussion about the reunification of the labor movement (see my post on that here.)

Perhaps some of this shift in theme is to be expected, given the economic conditions the country is now in and the fact that, with NCLB reauthorization seemingly on the backburner for now, passing the Employee Free Choice Act and a health-care reform bill are NEA's top priorities.

Near the end of his speech, Van Roekel did tie things back to education, asking his members to get involved in the school turnaround projects that the Education Department will be spearheading.

And he set new goals for organizing and political action that he wants the union to accomplish over the next year.

"We must be able to mobilize active members at a moment's notice, just as our opponents can do," he said. "NEA needs to have 50 activists in every congressional district by 2010. ... Whether it is health care, reauthorization of [NCLB], or any other federal legislation that affects our members, we must be able to move at Internet speed."

Will Van Roekel go down as a big labor hero in the annals of the NEA? Time will tell.

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