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The NEA and AFT: Teacher Unions in Power and Politics.

America's swerve to the right last November put the nation's two teachers unions in the crosshairs of critics of failing education. Republican-controlled state legislatures, giddy with the prospect of dressing down the powerful, traditionally Democratic unions, have produced a spate of proposals that threaten union strength, such as reducing union bargaining leverage and giving districts the freedom to more strictly punish striking teachers.

A book, then, about the powerhouse teacher unions - the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers - couldn't have come at a better time. The NEA and AFT: Teacher Unions in Power and Politics is a clarion call for policymakers to understand these important players in education and politics. This is made afl the more urgent by the potential merger between the two unions. Talks between the two long-running rivals have broken off for now, but may resume in the future.

The NEA is already the largest union in North America, and perhaps the world, with 2.2 million members. The merged teacher union would surge to a membership unprecedented by any union anywhere. "It would be the Goliath of labor," write authors Myron Lieberman, Charlene Haar, and Leo Troy. The merged union would number 2.5 to 2.7 million members initially; it could add an additional million within a decade.

This book provides valuable insight into how the NEA and AFT amassed their power, but it fails to explore a critical question: how that power undermines the best interest of children.

It barely mentions the wretched school building conditions that result when maintenance fails are diverted to teacher salaries; the harm to students when incompetent teachers cannot be dismissed because the unions have negotiated contracts that make firing bad teachers nearly impossible; and the fact that would-be parent volunteers are kept out of schools because their work threatens paid union labor.

In contrast, the authors go into ponderous detail about arguments over secret ballots at union conventions; varying estimates on the size of union membership; and the internal politics over the merger issue. The authors could have summarized such information and deftly relegated the details to endnotes for culling by only the most curious union aficionado. Indeed, the importance of these topics to the question of the quality of public school education is comparatively minor.

Despite its shortcomings, The NEA and AFT draws a useful picture of the unions' role in everything from the election of Bill Clinton to health care reform. One of every 10 delegates to the 1992 Democratic National Convention was a member of either union. The unions were powerful supporters of health reform because if the federal government absorbs school medical costs, more money will be available for teacher salaries.

But their influence isn't limited to only those issues that directly affect them. The NEA's political action committee was the third-largest donor in 1992, behind special interest heavy-weights the Teamsters and the American Medical Association. With that money they have chimed in on a range of topics from Haitian refugees to the balanced budget amendment.

The teachers unions also play pivotal roles in state legislative races, local school district races, and ballot questions on education. The battle over California's 1993 Voucher Initiative (Proposition 174), for example, may have been the most intensive campaign over a state educational initiative in U.S. history," the authors report. The measure would have provided families vouchers worth $2,600 to enroll each child in any public or private school of their choice. Fearing that the vouchers would drain children from public school systems, the California Teachers Association, the state affiliate of the NEA, spent an astounding $12.3 million to defeat the proposition.

The linchpin to the unions' political power is their structure. The advent of collective bargaining rights for public employee unions in the sixties spawned, as a side effect, vast political machines. Those machines, effectively organized under a national umbrella, were strengthened by a number of factors. Teachers have more time than most citizens to serve as campaign volunteers. In addition, unlike members of other unions, teachers traditionally don't lose pay on an annual basis when they strike. In almost every state, teachers make up lost strike time at the end of the year, making the labor action a much more attractive means of extracting concessions. Michigan only recently outlawed paying striking teachers for these make-up days.

The unions have other advantages. When their clout elects school board members sympathetic to teachers, they influence both sides of the bargaining table - a situation unparalleled in private industry.

Of state legislatures, Republicans control 50 chambers, up from 31 before the November elections. With their power, Republicans will have to focus on teacher unions as they have never done before, write Haar, Lieberman, and Troy. Typically conservative forces lack any program or strategy to deal with union issues, "partly due to their ignorance about teacher union structure, leadership, revenues, governance documents, dynamics - just about anything that matters," the authors write.

But such understanding is critical, the authors argue convincingly, considering the implications of a merger and creation of what would be the most powerful political interest group in American politics.

Maribeth Vander Weele covers education for the Chicago Sun-Times and is author of Reclaiming Our Schools: The Struggle for Chicago School Reform.
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Author:Weele, Maribeth Vander
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1995
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