Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Insulating the NEA

How is it that NEA becomes so insulated from its members? After all, we are the union, right?

My first big lesson in representative democracy came courtesy of the United Methodist Church. In the church structure, local churches are grouped into districts, and districts are grouped into larger regions, and on and on to the national level. Theoretically all these levels are responsive to the concerns of local churches, but as it turns out, not so much. The problem, as one wise man once explained to me, is that the district/regional/national body becomes the representatives' local church.

When they start out, reps say "we" when they mean the local they come from. But after a while, "we" means the regional coneference.

The EAs, like many large-scale representational bodies, use this process deliberately. When you go to a regional gathering of local reps and officers, business is always mixed with fun and parties and socializing. The energy is kept high and for newer local reps, it can be like being invited to sit at the lunch table with the very coolest kids.

In this day and age, there's little practical need for most of these gatherings. Information on issues could be sent out over the net, votes could be taken over the net, and at the very least the full-weekend gatherings could be reduced to a Saturday afternoon. Likewise union training sessions that could be a single day are often stretched into at least one overnight so that participants have the opportunity for a big social dinner followed by a dance or social event. And gathering locations are still picked based on what fun things there are to do.

While it's true that none of these training or governance events need to be dry, dull and painful, there's another purpose served by wrapping union gathering in so much socializing-- it bonds the local person to the larger group. I go back to my local school and when a co-worker talks to me about "that dumb-ass decision that those state level jerks made," I'm thinking, "No, that state-level jerk is my good friend Chris who is a great person, so I'm sure that decision is peachy swell."

For teacher-reps who have spent enough time at the state or national level, "we" means "union leadership" and "they" means "those guys who work at local schools."

This is not unique to NEA; most large groups involve switching loyalties from the local to the large group (e.g. too many Congressmen). This bonding in turn facilitates one of the most common, but toxic, principles of all political activity-- the ends justifies the means.

When we arrive at the outcome of this strategy, it will be really good for the members, so it's okay if we manage the rank and file in order to get them to support what we're doing. We'll tell them just what we need them to know. We'll stack the vote. We'll guarantee that we get the outcome we want, even if we have to totally trash any semblance of democratic process to do it, because we are pursuing a Worthwhile End. It's for the members' own good.

Believe me-- I totally get how leadership fosters a...well, crankiness...about members. If you've been a union officer for more than a week, you've heard all the classics: "My principal is yelling at me for leaving an hour early every day. Make him stop." "Why didn't you get us a contract with free ice cream every Tuesday?" "Do you mean to tell me they can discipline me just because I came to school drunk five or twelve times? Protect me!!"

And informing the members? You can try to explain something 147 times to members who blow you off more thoroughly than a sleepy fifth period class of low-function juniors, but a week later some of those same members will be angrily complaining that you made a decision on that same matter without consulting them. People don't want to be involved, but they still want veto power.

So I get it. I get how easily the rank and file can get under leadership's skin. I get that union leaders are like assistant principals-- dealing mostly with the problem children.  But here's the thing-- that's the job. Complaining about how much work your members create is like complaining that the students in your class are all children. That's the job. If you don't like the job, get another job.

And none of this justifies the NEA's insulated insular behavior. None of it justifies the Us vs. Them mentality with the members, nor does it justify "managing" the rank and file because only leadership really knows what's good for them. Shut up and fall in line, because, unity. NEA is so bad at communicating. SOoooooooo bad.It is so corporate and bureaucratic that most days it seems no different than the USDOE. Have DVR and Arne ever been seen together?

Can it be changed? I doubt it.

Even if we could somehow nominate and elect outsiders to represent us, they would face the same problem all outsiders face when entering an insular system-- they wouldn't be able to get anything done, because they would need the cooperation of the Old Guard (and in fact, the Old Guard carefully watches over the path to any offices of significant power-- ain't nobody storming that castle).

But we should still pay attention. We get ballots to vote on state reps and RAs and all manner of associationy stuff and most of us barely pay attention to who is going to what. We should start paying attention. We should start making sure that our representatives are actually representing us, and we should ask about sending them just for the sessions of substance and skipping the social hour. I don't really need to have my dues dollars spent on events designed to show my representatives that hanging out with the union leaders is so much cooler than spending time with the local rank and file. I don't want being a union rep to be a terrible chore, but I also don't want union reps to forget where they came from, and these days I don't think NEA leadership could find its way home with a GPS and a hundred days to make the trip.

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