I am a member of America's largest teachers' union, the National Education Association. If the NEA merges Sunday with its sole major national competitor, the American Federation of Teachers, I may soon be a member of the AFL-CIO as well.
The merger and the NEA's heavy involvement in fighting a California initiative that would have prevented use of member dues for political purposes reinforce for me just how little choice we teachers have.
Like many of my colleagues, I have long been disappointed with how my dues money - $700 per year - is spent. It has also become clear that teachers' union leadership often ignores the needs of classroom teachers and others it represents.
It would be hard to underestimate the time, effort, and money that the NEA - and its state affiliate the California Teachers' Association (CTA) - dedicated to defeating this month's California ballot initiative that would have prevented unions from using dues for political purposes, except where those of us who pay them make the gift voluntarily. I had no choice in my union's use of my dues in its campaign to make sure I continue to support political causes I do not believe in.
The NEA hierarchy now wants to merge with its only competitor - the AFT. US teachers already have significantly less choice in which union will represent them than do teachers overseas. A study by the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution found that teachers in industrialized countries have on average more than four unions to choose from. But here, there will be just one sizable national teachers' union now.
The expected merger in a vote Sunday will create a monopoly. But just in case we teachers might try to make a choice, the NEA is also limiting our say in this watershed decision. The NEA isn't allowing a direct membership vote on the merger.
Instead, the union will vote Sunday on the merger at its New Orleans convention, a meeting stacked with NEA national officials and their hand-picked activists.
The merger would bring the NEA into the AFL-CIO and further insulate union elites in the US from accountability to their members. It's unclear how teachers, as white-collar professionals, will benefit from such a consolidation. Over the years I've found that the NEA and its state affiliate don't make a convincing case that my $700 is well spent. For example, the union doesn't even argue that it has strengthened teacher pay. Yes, the NEA and AFT lobby for more "education spending." But much of it seems to go to the "education blob" of regulators and administrators that clog our public school system. As a study by education scholar Alveda King recently found, teacher pay as a share of per-pupil spending has declined by nearly half since1963.
BY contrast, the Association of California School Administrators provides a weekly newsletter that discusses salary statistics for administrators and lists jobs. It also provides better insurance benefits than the NEA/CTA. That's the type of service the NEA/CTA should provide, rather than trying to lead members around like sheep. Indeed, when there is a range of voices in associations - such as Rotary Clubs or Chambers of Commerce - these organizations get stronger, and members are more eager to contribute.
Educators like me are going to be thoroughly scrutinizing how well our new monopoly union is serving us and investigating our alternatives.
Choice, after all, should not be reserved for the union hierarchy.
* Jean Christensen Etter is a high school counselor at Palos Verdes Peninsula High School in California and a former public-school teacher.