National Education Association: Can Big Unions Be Good Unions?

John Sweeney, John Wilhelm, James Hoffa, Andrew Stern

May 2005

We now have, within the United States, fewer unions on the national scene than we’ve had in generations. Some reformers believe we need fewer still. To counter concentrated capital, the argument goes, we need to consolidate labor industry by industry until we end up with, in every sector, one big union.

In the United States today, we have exactly one union with such a national, sector-wide presence: the 2.7 million-member National Education Association. (The American Federation of Teachers also, of course, represents teachers and other education employees, but the AFT presence is concentrated in certain metro areas and one large state, New York.) Could NEA’s experience have lessons for the rest of labor?

In this rather obvious question, our labor movement doesn’t seem particularly interested. Many labor activists don’t even think of NEA as a real “union.” Within right-wing circles, by contrast, you won’t find any confusion about NEA’s identity. NEA has emerged, over the past 20 years, as the right’s top labor target, especially in “red states,” where NEA affiliates regularly frustrate conservative ideologues on issues from taxes to teaching evolution in the classroom.

But NEA has survived this right-wing offensive. Indeed, NEA membership has jumped, by over 1.1 million, since 1983. What explains this success? NEA, we believe, has built a union environment that is at once decentralized, democratic, and diverse.

The United States has only one union with a national sector-wide presence: the 2.7 million-member National Education Association. Photo: Jim West.

These three D’s matter. Let’s take them one by one.


NEA, originally founded in 1857, entered the 20th century as essentially a big tent for everyone—from university presidents to union-friendly activist teachers—who cared about public schools. But real clout within NEA sat with the state affiliates. Each operated as an autonomous entity.

Other unions in the United States, to be sure, have also begun as collections of autonomous state or local units. But no union today has evolved, across the entire nation, not just two levels of autonomy but three. These three levels—local, state, and national—sit at the heart of decentralization, NEA-style.

Each NEA level sets its own dues rate. Each determines its own agenda. Yet the three levels remain linked by culture, practice, and shared resources.

Until the early 1970s, educators could join an NEA affiliate without joining the national association. “Unification” came only after grassroots teacher members saw a need for it. Unification, they believed, would help overcome conservative state leaders resisting the move to collective bargaining.

And that’s exactly what happened. Unification enabled NEA to create a vast network of local staff dedicated to building strong locals that bargained and advocated for members. Today, over 30 years later, these locals run their own shows. Even the smallest of them control their own bargaining and contract enforcement.

This local autonomy helps build member involvement. In tiny Vermont, with about 125 affiliates, over 800 members annually serve as local officers, on bargaining teams, or as “building reps.” Over the course of several years, many hundreds more will cycle into active participation.

NEA, of course, does have weak affiliates. Autonomy, after all, includes the autonomy to stumble. But NEA’s whole, overall, has become more than the sum of its parts.


A democracy requires a democratic culture, a welcome mat for open debate. Within NEA, this sort of culture has roots that go back to NEA’s earliest days as a big-tent debating society.

But democracy also requires limits on leadership’s capacity to rig how debates turn out. The contemporary NEA has such limits in place. These limits didn’t just magically appear. They grew out of struggle—by classroom teachers.

NEA first started actively enrolling teachers as members after the 1916 founding of the American Federation of Teachers. NEA membership, less than 9,000 in 1917, would soar to over 200,000 by World War II.

NEA staff grew in those years, too, and top staffers would become NEA’s most important figures. Executive secretaries would typically serve for decades, balancing on a tightrope stretched between the often conflicting interests of school administrators and school teachers.

Militant grassroots teachers ended this balancing act. In the 1960s, NEA activists used footholds in local and state affiliates to win control of the association at the national level. And they then wrote a new constitution to lock this triumph in place.

The old constitution had limited the association’s elected officers to one-year terms, a cap that left staff in effective control. Grassroots activists erased this one-year limit but kept term limits, as a principle, intact. National elected leaders would eventually be able to serve two three-year terms.



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

In NEA today, elected leaders and staff operate in two distinct spheres. Elected leaders set all policy priorities and hire “executive directors” to manage staff. Elected leaders do not directly manage staff, and staff do not meddle in the association’s electoral politics. Those who do can be fired. Staffers, within NEA, can never become elected leaders themselves.

These two factors—term limits and a clear separation between governance and staff—set NEA apart in the modern union world. Inside NEA, no one holds perpetual personal power, one key reason why NEA has largely avoided the corruption scandals that have stained far too many other unions.

Ultimate power within NEA rests with the over 9,000 delegates elected to attend NEA’s annual Representative Assembly. Over a four-day span every July, these delegates—teachers, cafeteria workers, custodians, professors—determine positions, direct expenditures, and elect officers. Similar assemblies, throughout the year, set the course for state and local affiliates.

Not every affiliate always keeps governance and staff roles totally distinct, or embraces term limits. But the vast majority do, enough to sustain a culture that nurtures a real democracy.


Scan the floor at NEA’s annual Representative Assembly, and you’ll see more than democracy. You’ll see diversity. NEA requires every state “RA” delegation to reflect the ethnic diversity of the state.

NEA’s governance documents mandate diversity. Minorities, for instance, must make up at least 20 percent of the 150-plus-member NEA board of directors. If normal elections do not generate a board that meets this threshold, then delegates to the annual RA, voting in elections open only to minority candidates, choose enough new board members to reach the diversity standard.

Diversity standards even affect the association’s presidency. Should NEA go 11 years without a minority as president, the NEA constitution directs the association to “take such steps as may be legally permissible to elect a member of an ethnic-minority group.”

Over recent decades, NEA has added into this mix class-based guarantees that reflect the association’s growing ranks of blue- and pink-collar school support staff workers.

NEA policy has certainly not “fixed” all race, class, and gender tensions within the union. Women, to cite just one example, make up over two-thirds of the association’s membership. Yet the last three presidents have been men.

Still, NEA may do diversity as well as any national membership group, and that makes a difference. At root, all labor solidarity grows from personal relationships. NEA’s commitment to diversity is broadening these relationships, often well beyond the “comfort zones” that working men and women bring with them when they become NEA members.


We think the NEA experience demonstrates that a single union can establish a national sector-wide presence. But NEA has another lesson to offer. A sector-wide union can only thrive if built on a decentralized, democratic, and diverse base.

Decency, in short, breeds density.

Ellen David Friedman has organized school support workers for Vermont-NEA for the last 20 years. She’s a leader of the Vermont Workers Center and the Vermont Progressive Party.

Sam Pizzigati spent 20 years directing NEA’s national publishing. He currently edits Too Much, an online weekly on inequality.