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Teachers Union Officials Get Sappy, Sentimental about Declining Power

Last week, the day after the landmark failed recall elections in Wisconsin, I offered some thoughts about what it means and where it’s all headed. We’ve crossed an important threshold that shows the teachers union power is declining and that the industrial labor model of collective bargaining gradually fades from the governing of public education. But I didn’t realize that the changes would cause the status quo to go all sentimental so soon.

Yesterday, the Education Intelligence Agency’s Mike Antonucci sent out his weekly Communique detailing a remarkable revelation from the National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s largest teachers union. Following up on the news of significant NEA membership declines and the need to cut staff and budget at their Washington, D.C., office, Antonucci posted from an NEA memo being circulated among union activists:

Unlike in the past, our shrinking membership is not the sole product of a down economy from which we could expect to eventually recover. The forces impacting us are so strong that they have indelibly changed our industry, the educational system, and society at large. Things will never go back to the way they were…. [emphasis added]

Mind you, it wasn’t my parents who picked up on the phrasing. But some woman with a nasal voice started singing about “The Way We Were.” Sounds pretty sappy to me. Misty water-colored memories? What’s got teachers union headquarters so sentimental then?

Could it be memories of the heady days of retiring NEA general counsel Bob Chanin declaring that everybody picked on them because they had “power”? On the other hand, I’m pretty sure it has nothing to do with my recent poetic homage to the late Dr. Seuss, either.

To understand how significant the NEA memo is, you need look no further than Antonucci’s thumbnail analysis. As someone who has studied the politics and internal dynamics of American teachers unions more closely than anyone around, his clear-eyed and forthright assessment deserves some careful consideration:

You have to go all the way back to 1999-2000 to find an NEA budget with membership projections as low as the ones for 2013-14. NEA is planning for a cumulative loss of 346,000 full-time equivalent active, working members from its high-water mark just three years ago. That would be a drop of almost 15 percent.

The only budget category marked for increases is aid to state and local affiliates, which is NEA’s largest expenditure. This will help faltering affiliates, but may also result in throwing good money after bad into affiliates that might conceivably disappear entirely without such subsidies.

If even NEA has come to the realization that there will be no return to its salad days, we have already reached a point I never thought we would see. Now it really is a battle over what comes next. [emphasis added]

The union’s sentimental expression is startling. Yet while their power and influence ebbs, I don’t imagine NEA officials retiring quietly away to their apartments, donning nightshirts and curlers, brewing some nice cups of chamomile tea, and singing the night away along with their old Barbra Streisand CDs (records?). While you won’t get me to watch that old, sappy movie, I look forward to a different model of employee relations that respects both teacher voices and teacher options while focusing first and foremost on student learning needs. It may be more than a “misty water-colored” dream after all.