Retiring General Counsel’s Shocking Admission: The NEA Is a Union!

YouTube video that catches Bob Chanin, retiring general counsel of the National Education Association, calling right-wing groups ”bastards” for attacking his soon-to-be-former employer has recently been making the rounds. Not surprisingly, some right-wingers haven’t been too happy about Chanin’s retirement speech, not caring for the “bastard” label. I, however, want to thank Mr. Chanin for his salty valedictory. 

Why? First off, because his pugnacious presentation has a certain Teamsters feel to it, furnishing almost visceral confirmation that the National Education Association is a labor union pure-and-simple — not the high-brow “professional employee organization” it bills itself as — ready to slash tires or do whatever else it thinks necessary to get its way.

But I’m especially grateful because Mr. Chanin all but declares that the NEA is a power-obsessed, hyper-political union that serves not children, but adults. Of course, anyone who has followed the NEA knows that — indeed, its exactly what we should expect considering that it’s the adults who pay the dues — but it’s a shocking admission from someone so high in the association, and a reality the public all too often misses.

What follows is my transcription of the speech’s most revelatory section. Of course, if you would prefer to catch all the inflections, hemming and hawing, and crowd reactions, you can just watch the video. If you’re going to do that, either start at the beginning for the whole address (obviously) or go to about the 15-minute mark to hit the really revealing stuff. And maybe, when you’re done either reading or watching, send Mr. Chanin a retirement card with a little thank you note in it. After all, giving this honesty-filled speech could very well be the best thing he’s ever done for children or the public:

Why are these conservative and right-wing bastards picking on NEA and its affiliates? I will tell you why: It is the price we pay for success. NEA and its affiliates have been singled out because they are the most effective unions in the United States. And they are the nation’s leading advocates for public education and the type of liberal social and economic agenda that these groups find unacceptable….

At first glance, some of you may find these attacks troubling. But you would be wrong. They are, in fact, really a good thing. When I first came to NEA in the early ’60s it had few enemies, and was almost never criticized, attacked, or even mentioned in the media. This was because no one really gave a damn about what NEA did, or what NEA said. It was the proverbial sleeping giant: a conservative, apolitical, do-nothing organization.

But then, NEA began to change. It embraced collective bargaining. It supported teacher strikes. It established a political action committee. It spoke out for affirmative action, and it defended gay and lesbian rights. What NEA said and did began to matter. And the more we said and did, the more we pissed people off. And, in turn, the more enemies we made.

So the bad news, or depending on your point of view, the good news, is that NEA and its affiliates will continue to be attacked by conservative and right-wing groups as long as we continue to be effective advocates for public education, for education employees, and for human and civil rights.

And that brings me to my final, and most important point. Which is why, at least in my opinion, NEA and its affiliates are such effective advocates. Despite what some among us would like to believe, it is not because of our creative ideas. It is not because of the merit of our positions. It is not because we care about children. And it is not because we have a vision of a great public school for every child. NEA and its affiliates are effective advocates because we have power. And we have power because there are more than 3.2 million people who are willing to pay us hundreds of millions of dollars in dues each year because they believe that we are the unions that can most effectively represent them, the unions that can protect their rights and advance their interests as education employees.

This is not to say that the concern of NEA and its affiliates with closing achievement gaps, reducing dropout rates, improving teacher quality, and the like are unimportant or inappropriate. To the contrary, these are the goals that guide the work we do. But they need not and must not be achieved at the expense of due process, employee rights, and collective bargaining. That simply is too high a price to pay!

When all is said and done, NEA and its affiliates must never lose sight of the fact that they are unions, and what unions do first and foremost is represent their members.