NEA Convention

Though most folks wouldn’t know it, the July AFL-CIO convention wasn’t that month’s only national union convention. More than 9000 delegates of the National Education Association (NEA) — the largest union in the U.S. — met in Los Angeles from July 2 through 6 for their annual Representative Assembly.

While the assembly lacked the fireworks of the AFL-CIO split, there were some important developments for teachers and support personnel. Perhaps most importantly, the groundwork was laid for a merger between the NEA and the other major U.S. teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers.


Such a merger has been considered before, and some NEA locals (such as the United Teachers of Los Angeles) are already merged locals with the AFT. But the Representative Assembly’s adoption of a by-laws amendment to allow non-secret ballot voting in the union’s New York state affiliate makes a New York merger of the NEA and AFT much more likely.

Leaders of the New York AFT had considered the by-laws amendment a prerequisite for moving ahead with the merger effort. While it doesn’t guarantee a New York merger, the amendment was viewed as a test of the NEA's desire to progress on it. The vote therefore greatly facilitates a New York merger, which in turn would increase the pressure to move ahead with a national merger.

From the NEA’s perspective, merging with AFT’s New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) would add substantial clout. NYSUT includes the AFT’s New York City local, the 140,000-member United Federation of Teachers (UFT); as the country’s largest local teachers union, the UFT wields enormous power, in the labor movement and New York politics. Statewide, a merger would increase the NEA’s ranks by more than 400,000 members.

For the AFT and the AFL-CIO (of which the NEA is not currently a member), the potential of a national merger holds great attraction, particularly since SEIU, the Teamsters, and the UFCW left the federation. The NEA’s 2.6 million members would dramatically increase the AFL-CIO’s ranks. How NEA leadership sees this scenario is unclear; it’s quite possible they would seek alignment with the Change to Win coalition, or remain independent.




Give $10 a month or more and get our "Fight the Boss, Build the Union" T-shirt.

This assembly comes at a time when public education is under unprecedented attacks-- from efforts at downsizing and privatization, to the push towards fragmenting and defunding school districts. There are other problems as well, such as the rise of charter schools (small, non-union schools which receive public funding), increased standardized testing, and destructive guidelines set by the federal “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) Act.

Under President Reg Weaver, the NEA has maintained a “fix and fund” approach to NCLB, ignoring its basic destructiveness. Passed with bipartisan support, NCLB is a tool to downsize public education by threatening schools with the removal of federal funds. The legislation pulls resources from “under-performing” schools—where the greatest number of students performing below grade-level reside, and where teachers already face extreme pressures from lack of resources and experienced staff.

Under NCLB, schools with poor performance on standardized tests can be labelled “Progress Improvement” (PI) schools. If test scores do not improve in five years, a PI school can have its staff removed, be converted to a charter school, or be privatized. These policies hit under-resourced urban schools the hardest.


Unlike previous years, no major leaders of the Democratic Party were present at the assembly, (despite the fact that the NEA sent more members to the Democratic National Convention than any other organization). Only Antonio Villaraigosa, the newly-elected Los Angeles mayor, brought greetings. Although the NEA has tried to link with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, NEA leadership’s hesitation to address issues about which Democrats are indecisive--such as NCLB or the Iraq War—illustrates a major weakness in their approach to political action, which is largely limited to a lobbying, “insider” strategy.

Nevertheless, in a major success for the union's Peace and Justice Caucus, the delegates passed a new business item calling for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Additionally, the assembly voted to limit the military’s access to information about students.

Under NCLB, public high schools are required to release students’ information (including name, address, and telephone number) to military recruiters unless the parent or student “opts out” by instructing the school to keep the information private.