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NEA's Next Challenge: Organizing

When organizing is such as bedrock labor principal, it may seem counterintuitive to say that a teachers' union needs to do a much better job of it. But that is the reality for the National Education Association at a time of membership loss and much political hostility.

This week in Education Week, I take a look at the NEA's efforts to renew its organizing prowess. As I write, NEA's challenge is not just hosting more recruiting drives, but trying to get locals to organize around a set of principles that engages teachers and ultimately leads them to value membership in the organization for the long term.

Put another way, "we'll protect you if you get in trouble" is not a particularly appealing sell for a lot of today's teachers.

My story focused on NEA, where membership losses have been dramatic. But the American Federation of Teachers isn't off the hook yet either.

Here are a few other things to think about as you peruse the story.

• The values proposition for membership is key. It can be framed from a critical stance (fighting against overtesting, getting more funding) or a constructive one (offering PD, improving instructional quality). Unions have, historically, been much better at the former than at the latter. That's a challenge, specifically with respect to the sensitive topic of teacher evaluation. Unions have, thus far, been mostly unsuccessful in devising systems for policing their own that both policymakers and members find palatable. That vaccuum has left them with evaluations they don't like in a number of states.

• Second, there are generational and collective-bargaining challenges. Membership losses in the NEA have occurred even in states with historically strong bargaining laws; population flow towards the southern states mean that the best opportunities for organizing might be in places where membership isn't required. Moreover, what younger teachers want isn't necessarily what the baby-boomer teachers who currently run most unions want, which makes articulating principles a delicate balance.  

• Third, there are governance challenges. The AFT in particular is seeing a resurgence of sorts in some of its locals who think that the union's top brass isn't responsive to rank-and-file members' needs. Chicago is the best example, where dissatisfaction led to a leadership change. Of course, organizing is never really a done deal: The Chicago union was wildly successful in organizing parents to support a strike and against school closures, but it has yet to prove that other aspects of its agenda—for seniority, against testing, and against the common core—will strike a similar chord..

• Finally, there are structural challenges. NEA's little-known UniServ program of regional staff is, in theory, the perfect vehicle to push organizing. In practice, many of those staff just don't have the skills yet. 

All of this has left some doubts about whether the unions can pull this off, or whether future membership will be a function of labor laws and political winds. Will we see echoes of these themes at this year's NEA and AFT conventions? Stay tuned.

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