NEA Adjusting to New Normal Amid Membership Losses

The National Education Association, the umbrella group for most of the state teachers unions, is being forced into a drastic restructuring due to member losses and funding shortfalls. According to Mike Antonucci at the Education Intelligence Agency, the “we’re at war” declaration at last year’s assembly has come to pass, as the union is confronting a very unfriendly legislative climate in several states around the country.

EIA estimates that the unions around the country lost over 150,000 members over the last two years, and projects that a further 200,000 will be struck off the rolls in the next two years, a state of affairs unprecedented in the union’s history. The loss of such large chunk of membership fees means the topic expected to dominate the upcoming representative assembly will be various methods of belt-tightening.

NEA’s dues level is set by a formula tied to the average teacher salary, so additional revenues for the general fund can only be raised through a change in the by-laws, which would require approval by the representative assembly. To EIA’s knowledge, no one has yet suggested this remedy, so NEA must cover the budgetary shortfalls with the small programmed increase in dues ($2 per member this year) and spending cuts.

One way the NEA has already bowed to the inevitable is canceling the regional leadership conferences, starting next year and replacing them with two annual national gatherings. Although as of yet, the central office has managed to avoid layoffs, 56 staff members took early retirement last year. The union has also eliminated automatic salary increases, and will no longer run a 401(k) matching program.

Borrowing a page from the Oregon Education Association, NEA presented these cuts in staff and revenues in the form of a “reorganization,” complete with a new set of “strategic goals” and “core services.” The key elements of the reorganization are: 1) a greater percentage of NEA’s funds will be passed back down to its state affiliates; and 2) the creation of a Center for Organizing.

There already seem to be protests coming from the membership against the severity of the cuts, but it seems that the union’s board of directors is preparing the organization to continue operating in what might become the new normal. Although the extensive cost-cutting is meant not only to strengthen the organization’s fiscal position but also to eliminate uncertainty. Unfortunately that might not be possible, as the union’s contract with its own staff is expiring this week, and there’s no telling how the negotiations for the new one will progress.