The National Education Association seems to have narrowly averted the embarrassing spectacle of having its own workers go on strike.
NEA sources confirmed today that the union has reached a tentative agreement with its in-house staff union, the National Education Association Staff Organization. It has extended NEASO's existing contract, which expired May 31, until the new one can be voted on. That process should happen by the end of next week.
Though it's not well known, teachers' unions' own staffs are also typically unionized. NEA's staff contract is renewed every three years. This round of bargaining seems to have been particularly tough, primarily because NEA lately has had a rough time of it financially. Last year the union took measures to cut $17 million from its budget in the face of a declining membership. Closing that hole forced the union into offering an early-retirement incentive, so it could reduce its rolls without having to make layoffs.
Sources in the NEA tell me that there is a lot of internal reorganization going on and that reorganization has fueled some concerns and discomfort among the staff. NEA's executive director John Stocks, for instance, has allegedly emphasized campaigning and communications—even as other NEA-appointed commissions have called on the union to take a more active role on teacher quality and other professional issues, topics many current staffers are assigned to work on. (Stocks was traveling and couldn't be reached immediately for comment.)
Ramona Oliver, the NEA's senior director for communications, said she couldn't comment on the specifics of negotiations. On the NEA's general reorganization, she said that the NEA wants not just to defend itself against attacks on unions, but also to "emerge stronger and better prepared to meet the needs of the students we serve."
Much of the negotiations are shrouded in mystery, but here's what we know so far:
• The NEA reportedly sought to win more flexibility to reassign and dismiss staffers, and to reduce the amount of time devoted to staff union activity. There were also apparently some disagreements about how to calculate staff seniority, which affect things like retirement and annual-leave-accrual rates.
• This week's negotiations were overseen by a mediator and apparently focused on financial issues. Given that the staff union has generally fought to maintain its defined-benefit-pension and health benefits, it's likely that any cuts will be from other perks—such the matching component of a voluntary 401(k) plan that's already been eliminated for the union's executives, sources said.
• There was apparently enough friction during bargaining that the NEASO did a poll to take its members' temperature about going on strike, though those results weren't released. There also were "informational pickets" held outside the union's headquarters on 16th Street NW in the District of Columbia, and about 80 staffers showed up at HQ on Memorial Day in a show of solidarity during one of the bargaining sessions.
NEASO spokeswoman Sara Robertson said negotiations were focused on how to square a new contract with the reality of a smaller staff. Like most organizations, she said, NEA is dealing with a new economic reality.
"We're very positive we will reach a fair contract with NEA," she added. "This is a process every employer should offer."