Could the Next Strike in Education Be Against the Teachers' Union?
This spring has been full of labor unrest among educators, with unions playing a supporting role in the protests. But the latest strike threat is directed at the largest national teachers' union itself.
More than 80 percent of members of the National Education Association Staff Organization—the union for employees of the National Education Association—voted Wednesday to authorize the NEASO bargaining team and board of directors to call for a strike starting June 12. The staff's contract expired May 31, and the two sides have yet to come to an agreement over a new contract. The NEA, which is the nation's largest teachers' union, employs about 500 people at its headquarters in Washington.
While neither side would speak about the specifics of the contract negotiations, the NEASO is asking for salary raises for employees.
"We do not want to strike, but we will call for one if necessary because this fight is about values—NEA's values as a union and as a champion of progressive causes," said NEASO President Susan Nogan in a statement. "We simply are asking NEA to live up to its values as the largest labor union in the country."
After the strike vote, Nogan said, NEA agreed to return to the bargaining table to continue discussions. Meanwhile, NEA officials say they have never left.
"We're committed to the collective-bargaining process, not just for our members but also for our staff," said Chaka Donaldson, NEA's interim director of human resources. "We want to make sure we craft a solution for our staff that enables us to keep promises that we made in the past. ... We're fully committed to [the staff's] right to organize."
The contract negotiations are happening as the NEA is bracing for a blow from the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices are expected to hand down a decision in the coming weeks that could strip unions' right to collect "agency" or "fair-share" fees. Workers who choose not to join the union but are still represented in collective bargaining currently pay such fees in 22 states. The NEA is planning to cut its two-year budget by $50 million (or 13 percent) in the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision.
NEA staff (NEASO) has set a strike vote date due to NEA's attempt to impose a contract on them. You can't make this stuff up. At a time when we should all be focused on retaining membership, NEA is creating a potential labor war with its own staff.-- Mike Boyer NSO VP for Defense (@NSOMiBoyer) June 7, 2018
"Everyone on both sides of the table knows that Janus is looming," Donaldson said. "It's been in our minds for months now. These are difficult and uncertain times for us. ... Our negotiations reflect the prudent approach, reflect the practical approach."
The National Staff Organization, which represents all staff unions of the NEA and its state affiliates, has been worried about the negative effects of an adverse Janus ruling on staff for months now. In January, Mike Antonucci, the director of the Education Intelligence Agency and a union watchdog, reported that the NSO said staff unions will be "under assault as NEA and state affiliates attempt to cut back and restructure in the face of the Janus threat."
This year, the NEA has eliminated 41 employee positions through buyouts, early retirements, and attrition, including some management positions. NEA has been working to "right-size" the organization for years now, Donaldson said, adding that she isn't sure if the organization will eliminate more positions in the next few years.
"It really depends on what happens with the Janus case, and it depends on what happens in our membership," she said.
NEA's staff contract is renewed every three years. Back in 2012, the staff also considered going on strike, although that was narrowly averted. My colleague Stephen Sawchuk reported then that the NEA had wanted more flexibility to reassign and dismiss staffers, among other controversial proposals—although the NEA wouldn't comment on the final negotiations.
This year, in a pointed gesture, NEA staff members have been wearing red shirts during the bargaining process. Red—as in, #RedforEd—has been the color of the teacher labor movement this spring.
Indeed, in Nogan's statement, she referenced the teacher strikes and demonstrations that happened across the country.
"Let us make this clear: This is not just about the bread-and-butter issues of union contracts," Nogan said. "This also is about fairness and the sacrifices we make while fighting alongside educators in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Colorado, Kentucky, Arizona, and all over the country."
Both sides say they are optimistic they can reach a positive resolution.
"We're still at the bargaining table," Donaldson said. "We will stay at the table until we can come to a resolution. ... While there may be some disagreements now, eventually we're going to come to an agreement."
Updated: This post was updated with quotes from NEA's Chaka Donaldson.
Clarification: A previous version of this post should have noted that the total number of positions eliminated by NEA includes both staff and management positions.