Teachers skin deep, union to the bone: How the National Education Association manages its image

By Mike Antonucci
web posted July 10, 2000

Imagine International Brotherhood of Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa Jr. holding a press conference and announcing a far-reaching plan for reforming the U.S. transportation system. "Trucks are getting too large for one driver to handle," Hoffa might say. "With the increases in commuter traffic and the higher speeds now allowed in many states, it is simply too dangerous to assume that one person can handle today’s big rigs." He might then propose a federal law limiting the size and capacity of trucks, and another requiring that any trucker sent on a trip expected to take more than six hours have a relief driver ride along with him or her for safety.

Or suppose William Daniels, the president of the Screen Actors Guild, told reporters that since the vast majority of SAG members barely earned subsistence wages it was time for the entertainment industry to raise salaries across the board. What’s more, it was unfair for Leonardo DiCaprio to make $20 million for an acting job, particularly since he had much less experience than, say, Martin Landau. And firing bad actors would have to stop. "How can producers or directors judge a performance when they’ve never acted in their lives?" he might say. "Bad actors merely need added assistance from their peers."

Whatever the merits of Hoffa’s and Daniels’ plans, we would expect journalists to be skeptical of them, particularly since the solutions seem to serve the union at the expense of the public—perhaps even at the expense of the rank-and-file union member.

Yet when officials of the National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s largest teachers’ union, propose massive federal subsidies to reduce class size or increase teacher salaries to attract "the best and the brightest," there is very little skepticism because they’re, well, teachers. And as such they receive the benefit of the doubt to an extent that makes industrial union officials green with envy.

For 25 years the NEA has been recognized by the federal government as a labor union. The filing requirements placed on the NEA by the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Department of Labor are indistinguishable from those placed on the Teamsters, the United Auto Workers, or the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. The NEA, however, refers to itself internally as "the Association," and it greatly downplays its union status when dealing with the media. This spin has been so successful that many NEA members don’t even believe they belong to a labor union.

From November 30 to December 2, 1998, the Alabama Education Association polled its members on a large number of questions, including one which asked whether they thought the NEA was "part of organized labor and the labor movement." Forty-nine percent of those surveyed said yes, but 39 percent said no. When asked what description fit the NEA best, only 5 percent said "a labor union." By far, the largest group—48 percent—said "a professional association."

During the 1960s, the NEA had great difficulty competing with the American Federation of Teachers in collective bargaining elections precisely because, at that time, the NEA was a professional association and not a labor union. It went through a painful transition and much internal upheaval to become a labor union in the mid-1970s. So why wouldn’t the NEA trumpet its unionism to the press and the world? One need only look at the polls to answer that question.

In 1995, the California Teachers Association commissioned a poll and found that 85 percent of the public had a favorable impression of teachers. When asked about teacher unions, the favorable impression dropped to 48 percent.

Major polling firms have had similar results. A Louis Harris survey in October 1998 asked the public to identify professionals they trusted to tell the truth. Teachers topped the list, with 86 percent of the respondents naming them as truthful. Teachers even finished ahead of clergymen. Members of Congress ranked thirteenth. But trade union leaders were in last place among the sixteen professions listed. Only 37 percent of the respondents named them as truthful.

Those surveyed in a November 1999 Gallup poll were asked to rate the honesty and ethical standards of people in various professions. Nurses and other medical professionals took the top four slots, but grade and high school teachers came in fifth, with 57 percent of respondents rating them high or very high in honesty. The clergy, judges and police officers trailed them. But labor union leaders ranked 30th of the 45 professions named, with only 17 percent rating them high or very high in ethical standards.

Given these results, which of the two words in the term "teachers’ union" would you emphasize?

Because it’s important for the NEA to equate itself with institutions that are more popular than unions, it has relied on the formula: NEA = teachers = public education = American democracy. Oppose the first and you oppose them all. Likewise, when the NEA defends itself, it says it’s defending teachers, public education and American democracy. The problem, as the NEA sees it, is that the public is just not getting it. And so, like that algebra teacher you hated so much in high school, the union is going to keep drilling us and drilling us until we get it through our thick heads.

The NEA has developed a strategy for using the media to publicize its self-image. This strategy is illustrated in the union’s 1997 booklet, "Do You See What I’m Saying? Using Message to Reconnect with the Public." NEA officials aren’t stupid. They recognize that they and the public are "disconnected." But they are unable to come to grips with the idea that NEA policies or operations are in any way responsible. They believe they have simply let themselves be defined by others, and that all it will take is the right public relations campaign to straighten it out. In language that would make a Madison Avenue advertising executive wince, NEA’s booklet explains, "Any American when asked about NEA should be able to readily answer, ‘It’s that group working to enhance school quality and prepare students for jobs of the future.’"

Back in the real world, people think of the NEA as "that group working to enhance itself."

The public makes judgments about education and unions after choosing from among a variety of media: television, radio, newspapers, magazines, the Internet and trade publications. For better or worse, people choose their favorite sources of information and take positions based on what they see and read. But the NEA maintains that the public is disconnected, and that "anti-public education extremists" manipulate the press into uncritically passing along their message.

"Most people are too preoccupied with soccer schedules or the latest scrap with their boss to think too long or hard about the structure of schools, the forces affecting the lives of children, or the relationship of education to the future," NEA explains to its activists in their eponymous 1997 booklet. "We fall so deeply into the trap of wanting to educate people that we’ve come to believe it’s condescending to be simple and direct. It’s not. Somebody is going to simplify the issues, Rush Limbaugh, Forbes magazine, or the Concerned Women of America (sic). Our critics have a strong motivation to define the issues and us. And most in the media do not think critically about the ‘analyses’ of anti-public education commentators or politicians."

So how do these NEA critics win over the public? According to the union, their ranting drowns out the NEA’s reasoning. "Most Association [i.e. NEA] advocates build their arguments around reason," the union writes. "We are used to arguing a case in a hearing, lobbying a state legislator, or making a case before the school board. We can’t expect those same arguments to prevail when people aren’t engaged. And we can’t expect rational arguments to prevail when public school critics appeal to the emotions with concepts like ‘choice’ versus ‘the failed Soviet-style centralized bureaucracy.’ When we try to counter with an explanation of how the public schools aren’t a monopoly, that public schools have a wide diversity of choices and options among the 15,000 school districts, etc., we’ve lost the battle—because we’re not talking about our issues, such as public school success, economic opportunity, or local control through elected school boards."

Back in the real world, people believe the union’s issues are salaries, benefits and working conditions.

In fact, the NEA is the undisputed champion of the emotional appeal. But the union goes about it in a very calculated way. "We must define ourselves both in terms of what we’re for and what the alternatives are by drawing stark contrasts," reads the booklet. "For example, the Association supports democratic control of public schools, high standards for students, and expanding choices for parents within the public schools. Voucher advocates want to throw education decisions into the marketplace where it’s ‘get it while you can’ and ‘let the buyer beware.’"

The NEA can draw the starkest of contrasts. The NEA’s top officials have referred to vouchers as "leeches" and "cancer." And they make no distinction among their opponents. All of them are lumped together as "extremists" or "the radical right." The NEA’s Center for the Preservation of Public Education produced a series of "In Brief" handouts in the mid-1990’s for use by union activists. Here is an excerpt from the Center’s handout on "The Radical Right":

"The ultimate aim of the extreme right is the destruction of public education in America. Their roots go back at least 40 years to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision. Then right-wing segregationists called for tuition tax credits to pay for white student attendance at private segregated academies. Now they promote tuition vouchers to pay for any student to attend a religious or other private school at taxpayer expense. What differentiates the right wing today from 40 years ago is its size, its organization, and its status. What was then a scattered assortment of religious zealots and blatantly racist hate groups has become a politically adroit, well-organized network of activist organizations, think tanks, and private foundations that operate both nationally and at the grassroots across the country."

Back in the real world, people can tell the difference between a racist hate group and the Heritage Foundation.

Parents and other concerned citizens involve themselves in public school governance because they care about what’s going on. But the NEA believes such parental and community involvement is merely the first salvo in an upcoming extremist assault.

Another union publication about extremists, entitled "NEA: Radical Right," tells activists: "Assume the worst. Assume that, sooner or later, the radical right will surface in your schools, working to make them over to suit themselves." How does one recognize the presence of the Radical Right, aside from the cloven hooves and barbed tails? The NEA explains: "The formation of ‘concerned parents’ groups, and the attendance of leaders of such a group at board meetings, for example, usually signal a possible censorship attempt.... The only way you can tell the difference between an honestly concerned parent group and a (sic) anti-public-school extremist operation is to study the tactics of extremism."

Despite all the time and resources devoted to studying "the tactics of extremism," the NEA’s best efforts at the task are noticeably amateurish. In September 1998, the union was aiding its affiliate, the California Teachers Association (CTA), in a campaign to defeat Proposition 226, a ballot initiative that would have required labor unions to get permission from each member annually to spend dues for political purposes.

Proposition 226 was clearly a political stab at the unions in California. Nevertheless, it was a threat strictly to the unions and to no one else. This made it especially dangerous for the NEA and the CTA, because support for the measure among their own members was at 76 percent in January 1998. To defeat Proposition 226, the NEA had to shoehorn it into the NEA = teachers = public education = American democracy equation. After months of work, the NEA on October 1, 1998 released an extensive report—with much press fanfare—called "The Real Story Behind ‘Paycheck Protection’: The Hidden Link Between Anti-Worker and Anti-Public Education Initiatives: An Anatomy of the Far Right."

The report was as unwieldy as the title. It consisted entirely of public information, except for a conspiracy flow chart that could have been lifted directly from a John Birch Society pamphlet about the Trilateral Commission. The conspiracy seems to have been haphazardly formed, since it didn’t include the Concerned Women for America, a group that gave the NEA fits in 1995 when it highlighted the union’s support for Lesbian and Gay History Month. On the other hand, the report did include a short biography of Elaine Donnelly, the president of the Center for Military Readiness. Ms. Donnelly has nothing to do with unions, education or California. The report also mentioned Dr. Stan Monteith, who writes a small newsletter about AIDS.

Despite the NEA’s best efforts at lobbying the press, the report met with immediate ridicule. The kindest remarks were made by Robert Greene of the Associated Press: "But if there is evidence, other than by association, that supporters of dues restrictions are motivated by a desire to dismantle public schools, it was not clearly laid out in the NEA’s new 144-page booklet."

The NEA named John Walton of the Wal-Mart fortune as one of the ringleaders of the conspiracy. It cited his $250,250 contribution to a voucher initiative in 1993 and his $360,000 contribution to Proposition 226. Walton also gave $137,000 to the Claremont Institute, which paid for pro-Prop 226 ads.

But two years later, Walton donated $1 million to Proposition 26, an initiative that the NEA and the CTA supported which would have made it easier to pass school bonds. This amount was more than his voucher and Proposition 226 contributions combined. But the NEA didn’t hold a press conference for the later contribution, nor did it include itself in a conspiracy flow chart.

Though its media campaigns have had problems, the NEA is reluctant to let its activists ad lib. The union has perfected the art of "talking points." Long hours are spent ginning up guidelines for any topic that may arise in the press, the public or among NEA members themselves. "With everything in their day, we can’t count on reporters giving a lot of thought to our latest opinion," the NEA explains to its activists in their booklet, "Do You See What I’m Saying? Using Message to Reconnect with the Public." "We must talk about a narrowly focused range of topics—children, quality, and the future—to get the kind of repetition necessary to leave the impression we want."

The purpose of talking points is not to answer questions accurately. They are designed to provide union activists a tool to turn questions into opportunities to spout the NEA line. Such propaganda works on members as well as the press. In March 1999, the National Right to Work Committee sent e-mails to California teachers to advise them of their Beck rights. The campaign apparently prompted many teachers to question the CTA about agency fees. Quickly, the union sprang into action. It produced "Talking Points in Response to The National Right to Work Committee" and distributed them to all its local affiliates. "Once again, the National Right to Work Committee is soliciting members of the California Teachers Association to drop out of the union or become agency fee payers," the notice began. "This time, their anti-union rhetoric is showing up as unsolicited e-mail. If issues raised in this e-mail come up in your area, consider these responses." The handout then lists five responses to give to members asking about Beck rights, the first being: "The National Right to Work Committee is an extremist group that is aligned with other conservative groups in America that have promoted private school tuition vouchers."

Back in the real world, "guilt" by association is considered a McCarthyite tactic.

For the NEA, the lack of talking points can lead to blunders and errors in judgment. "Sometimes we can be our own worst enemy," the NEA said in its "Talking Points" alert. "We feel uncomfortable when someone raises an issue to which there is no good argument—or isn’t answered directly within the context of our message box. When you have a message and stick to it, you’re less likely to say things that can be taken out of context."

The union believes this so fervently that it takes it to ridiculous lengths. For instance, a Washington Education Association handout entitled "Handling Media and Public Attention" gave this advice to local officials and staff faced with a member accused of abusing a student: "The way we handle things in a crisis determines not only our public image, but can also affect the way future allegations are handled and perceived. It also establishes our ability to positively affect the media in other situations."

In a series of tips for handling public attention, the WEA handout suggests that activists "acknowledge the seriousness of the event and put the association on the ‘right side’ of the issue. If the association and/or the school district has conducted any training or provided any other positive programs aimed at helping education employees and/or students deal with the issue of sexual abuse, emphasize the success of those programs. Sometimes, a negative issue can result in some positive publicity for the good things that are going on related to the issue of abuse."

Back in the real world, alleged abuse of a child is not an opportunity for positive publicity.

Of course, that’s not to suggest that union representatives are better off shooting from the hip. In September 1997, the Detroit News published a front-page story based on Education Intelligence Agency research that listed the salaries and expenses of the top officials and staff of the Michigan Education Association. Caught off guard, the union at first refused to comment. But when the Associated Press came around, MEA spokeswoman Dawn Cooper called the story "fraught with errors" and added, "I don’t know where they got their figures."

The salary figures, quite naturally, were taken directly from the MEA’s annual report to the U.S. Department of Labor, called an LM-2. The report contains the signatures of the MEA’s top officials, who attest that the numbers are true and accurate under penalty of perjury.

In September 1999, the Education Intelligence Agency reported that the Pilchuck UniServ Council (affiliated with the Washington Education Association) had published a story in its Board Report with the headline, "When in Doubt, Shred!" The item read: "This advice comes from WEA attorney, Jerry Painter, as he discussed the WEA’s Retention/Destruction Policy for anyone who handles WEA documents. Presidents of locals, councils, staff, etc. will all be receiving copies of the new policy regarding how long to retain specific types of documents." The Board Report was posted on the web page of the Sultan Education Association, a local WEA affiliate.

The Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a public policy organization engaged in a series of lawsuits against the WEA, disseminated the story throughout the state. The union’s response was unusual even by its own standards. Rather than remove the entire report from its web page, the Sultan Education Association simply removed the offending item. Visitors to their web page who wanted to read the September Board Report were treated to a large white space where the shredding story had once been.

Since the NEA can be so clumsy in its public relations, how has it managed to shield itself from the type of press scrutiny that dogs unions like the Teamsters and the Laborers’ Union (LIUNA)? The answer is sheer weight.

The NEA reacts so brutally to bad press that it manages to deter the type of ongoing investigative reporting that might really cause the union some problems. Editors don’t mind braving the wrath of the teachers’ unions occasionally, especially if they believe it’s in the service of a good cause. But how many editors are willing to suffer abuse day in and day out, over a period of weeks or months, while their reporters try to break a major story on the NEA? In other words, it’s a lot easier for editors to throw a grenade at the union, watch the explosion, and then move on, rather than exposing their troops to concentrated fire.

Anyone who has ever written about teachers’ unions has his or her own war stories. In 1996, Thomas Toch of U.S. News & World Report wrote a story critical of NEA entitled "Why Teachers Don’t Teach." Then-NEA President Keith Geiger wrote a lengthy response that began, "Tabloid-style journalism stooped to a new low..." The union advised its activists to write protest letters to the magazine and, typically, they were given an extensive set of talking points to use when confronted with the article’s conclusions. More recently, John Stossel of ABC News was pummeled by the NEA for a 20/20 report he did on public and private schools.

Although major newsmagazines rarely run articles like Toch’s, the NEA’s eyes are everywhere, waiting to react to the slightest provocation. Last year, Redbook and Good Housekeeping—hardly known for hard-hitting journalism—each published articles about unions that protect bad teachers from dismissal or discipline. The NEA reacted strongly both times, with letters from NEA President Bob Chase. Then it called for letters from activists, and followed those with talking points to answer any public outcry. No publication is too obscure to escape the NEA’s wrath. In May 1996, Randy Moore, editor of The American Biology Teacher, wrote an editorial critical of teachers’ unions. He got the same treatment as Toch: the NEA immediately sent an e-mail message to activists asking them to deluge him with letters.

Don’t bother trying to target your criticism specifically, either. Bruce Murphy of Milwaukee magazine tried that in February 1998. Murphy wrote a very critical story about the staff of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association and its executive director, Sam Carmen. But Murphy treated MTEA President Paulette Copeland sympathetically and quoted her extensively regarding the obstructionist attitudes of the staff. Two weeks later, the MTEA newsletter ran a story with the headline, "Unprecedented Personal Attack on MTEA Leaders."

Sometimes union staffers don’t even wait for negative stories to appear before reacting wildly. In September 1997, Trevor Neilson, then media relations director for the Washington Education Association (WEA), warned WEA members in a newsletter article to expect criticism for bad test scores. "The [state test] results are not all together positive," he wrote, "and the usual roundup of extremist wackos, voucher-heads and militia members will hee and haw claiming that it is, well, your fault. That’s right, you, the educators of Washington. It is also likely that the media will look for someone to blame, and head in your direction."

Back in the real world, militia members don’t care about student performance, but many normal rational citizens do. And they don’t "hee and haw."

The NEA’s problem is that it’s an organization that wants the clout of the AFL-CIO and the public image of a dedicated schoolmarm. Anyone who chips away at its fantasy can expect a reaction as subtle as a brick through the window. Investigative reporters would find a treasure trove of good stories if only they would bypass the NEA’s "message" and instead search out the truth. All they need is an interest in labor issues and the realization that a brick through the window means they’re on to something.

Mike Antonucci is director of the Education Intelligence Agency, a California-based public education research firm. Reprinted with the kind permission of the Capital Research Center.

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