The nation’s largest teachers’ union is attempting to revive a fundamental labor principle: organizing.
With its membership down by more than 230,000 members over the past three years, the National Education Association is imploring local affiliates to better engage current and potential members. It has launched a Center for Organizing to provide tools and training, has put millions of dollars behind local affiliates’ plans, and is pushing regional support staff to lead the charge.
Not since the 1970s, when its teachers helped win public-sector collective bargaining laws across the country, has organizing been such a priority for the 3 million-member NEA. What’s more, the union is promoting membership as an avenue to better teaching and learning conditions, rather than relying on traditional recruitment drives.
“I can stand here until you sign a membership form, but the minute I leave, you need to see the value in that engagement,” summarized Jim Testerman, the director of the NEA Center for Organizing, of the case he expects organizers to make.
The work is not without its challenges, union officials acknowledge. Among them is getting affiliates who have been locked into a “service” mentality — handling grievances and collective bargaining — to add the more active role of organizing to their “to do” list.