|Power and Privilege
Union Agendas Appear
by Steven Miller
major disconnect between leaders of the National Education Association teacher union and thousands of their own rank and file was publicly and embarrassingly laid bare in New Orleans one day after the Fourth of July.
In what may be a watershed declaration of independence, thousands of American teachers emphatically rejected a long-time favorite scheme of NEA top brassto merge the organization with the AFL-CIOs American Federation of Teachers (AFT).
Not only did the proposal fail to achieve the two-thirds majority needed, it also fell far short of even a majority. Only 42 percent of the 10,000 NEA delegates to the annual convention supported the merger idea.
Current NEA President Bob Chase had campaigned vigorously for the plan. But also strongly behind it were the organizations five most recent presidents. The vote, therefore, is being interpreted in many quarters as a de facto repudiation of years of NEA leadership.
"They [had] clearly attempted to scare people into voting for this," Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, told the Washington Post. "But the vote is a testimony to the fact that at the grass roots, more and more teachers are breaking with traditional union policy."
While officers of the NEA had been beating the drum for the merger most loudly for the last six months, this particular campaign actually kicked off at another July convention five years ago in San Francisco. There, organization hierarchs sought and received a membership okay to enter into the recent AFT talks. But as longtime education union member, writer and negotiator Myron Lieberman notes, "In both the NEA and AFT, interest in merger talks has waxed and waned since 1960."
All along, however, its been the union officershoming in on the prospect of greater personal political powerwhove been driving the merger idea. The NEA rank-and-file teachers have been much less eager.
As Cheri James, president of the NEA's Virginia affiliate told the Post, the merger being pushed for by the NEA national leadership "would have been a very big cultural change for our members. We did not support it."
The disconnect between NEA officers and grass-roots teachers demonstrated in New Orleans reveals its broader significance when viewed in the context of the Paycheck Protection wars now going on across America. Union bosses all across the country have been hitting the panic button over the prospect that their members might gain just a tiny bit more freedom.
Hundreds of millions of dollarsdollars still taken, incidentally, without members permissionare being spent to thoroughly misrepresent the Paycheck Protection question.
The reason why is clearthe union nabobs know only a minority of their members share their own left-wing power-mongering goals.
Recall how the whole Paycheck Protection battle startedwhen Washington state passed a 1992 law requiring both employers and unions to get written permission from workers before taking any part of their salary or dues to be used in political campaigns. The number of teachers who contribute to the Washington NEA affiliate's PAC promptly declined by 83 percentfrom 48,000 to a mere 8,000!
Thus the panic among union operators generally and NEA moguls specifically. They knowfrom the Washington state events and from their own close-to-the-chest experience over many yearsthat only a minority of the union membership shares their over-all political agenda. And to the extent teachers and other union members can exercise real freedom and democracy, that agenda grows increasingly vulnerable.
Maybe that was the reason behind one particular term in the merger agreement NEA honchos were pushing in New Orleans.
According to the July 1 Wall Street Journal, the provision would have ended the NEA memberships power to decide questions by secret ballot.
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An independent group of Las Vegas workers charged last month that the Nevada AFL-CIOs reputed $350,000 television advertising campaign is "a remarkable insult to the workers whose hard-earned dues paid for it."
"Its not like this money fell out of the sky," said Bruce Esgar, president of Nevada Employees for the Right to Work. "It came from one placedues, [and] most of it Culinary members dues, since in Nevada the Culinary Union is the AFL-CIO."
Esgar asserted that a vote conducted by Culinary leaders in Februaryon whether to continue member dues at the highest level everhad been a "sham."
"Supposedly those dues increases were to continue the strike fund started to support pickets at the Frontier," said Esgar, arguing that though that strike is long over, the union chiefs, rather than return it, are spending it to expand their empires. "There is something wrong with this picture," said Esgar. "On the one hand, John Sweeney, head of the AFL-CIO was in Las Vegas recently proclaiming this to be a national labor stronghold. Now, just a few months later, the union is spending hundreds of thousands on a recruiting drive."u
Steven Miller is Managing Editor of Nevada Journal.