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On Monday, the National Education Association and its California affiliate tried to seize control of one of its largest locals, the 1,525-member Modesto Teachers Association, after it announced that it would hold a vote this week to break away from the union.

The effort was thwarted when police officers refused to let the union into the local’s building. The NEA’s effort to take control of Modesto’s bank accounts was also thwarted. Declared Modesto’s attorney, Rafael Ruano to the Modesto Bee: “All they have is a scrap of paper saying they’ve imposed trusteeship…and there’s no legal basis for them to do it.”


Three weeks earlier, the NEA and its Maryland affiliate took over another local, the Wicomico County Education Association, after it moved to hold a vote at the end of April on whether to disaffiliate from the national union. The state affiliate sacked the local’s leadership and took over its offices in violation of its own rules. Eighteen days later, a Maryland circuit court judge issued a temporary restraining order handing control of Wicomico back to its local board.

The NEA’s largest competitor the American Federation of Teachers has had to work hard to keep its own locals from breaking away. Last July, the union successfully ousted the leadership of the 900-member Dearborn Federation of School Employees after it voted to cut ties to the union. Holding what can be best called a kangaroo court hearing, the AFT claimed that the Dearborn local’s president violated the local’s constitution by daring to hold a disaffiliation vote.

AFT locals are used to the union’s strong-arm tactics: Eight years earlier, the AFT first fought the efforts of its former Puerto Rico affiliate to break ties, then, after conceding defeat, it shut down the unit’s Web site and demanded the former local local pay back loans.

The NEA and AFT remain the primary bargaining agents for 4.6 million teachers and other school employees. They are also the biggest donors in American politics, pouring $82 million (not including spending by their super-PACS) into campaigns, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. But these days, rank-and-file members are questioning the value of membership in the two unions — and concluding that they, along with their locals, are better off cutting ties altogether.

Since November, the NEA has seen several locals break ranks. These includes locals in three California districts, Corning Union High School, Millville Elementary, and Springville Union Elementary, as well as locals in Sully, Iowa. It has also seen teachers and other employees in districts decertify its locals and start their own independent unions. This includes teachers in the Vermillion district in Kansas, who voted to cut ties with the union and bargain collectively on their own.

From where teachers and locals sit, the dues they kick back to the national union could be better-used at the local level for representing teachers in workplace disputes and in contract negotiations.

These defections couldn’t come at a worse time. Thanks to district layoffs, along with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s successful effort to end collective bargaining, NEA membership declined by 6.2 percent between 2010 and 2013, according to an analysis by my Dropout Nation. The AFT’s revenue declined by 15 percent between 2012 and 2013, according to an analysis of the union’s filing with the U.S. Department of Labor.

For the NEA and the AFT, the fear is that its largest locals, especially those in the nation’s big cities such as the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, will eventually strike out on their own. After all, these locals are big enough to not even have to bother with national affiliation.

Teachers didn’t always question the value of NEA and AFT membership. Since the 1960s, they have given wholehearted financial and political support to the two unions and their alliance with the Democratic Party even though many of them are likely to vote Republican. In exchange for the generous dues payments, the unions put out all the stops to protect longtime teachers from layoffs, give teachers a stronger voice in school and district decisions, and assure them of perks such as workdays in which the actual time for teaching children is often less than the eight hours worked.

For decades, the bargain worked out splendidly. Between 1970 and 2010, the average class size for a public school teacher declined from 22.3 students to 16, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Compensation, especially in the form of defined-benefit pensions, became especially generous. By 2007, 25 percent of Michigan teachers and other school employees retire before age 55 while 64 percent leave before reaching 60, according to an analysis by the Detroit News.

But these days, the NEA and AFT are no longer able to assure rank-and-file members that teaching will remain the most-comfortable profession in the public sector. The much-needed reform of America’s abysmal public school systems, along with the long-term costs of underfunded pensions, and the consensus that seniority- and degree-based pay scales fail to reward high-quality instruction is making it difficult for the two unions to defend the traditional system of near-lifetime employment, employer-subsidized healthcare plans, and other job protections.

The role of centrist Democrat school reformers in shaping the Obama Administration’s education policy agenda means that neither union counts on unquestioned support. Successful efforts in Wisconsin and Tennessee to abolish collective bargaining have also made it harder for the two unions to justify their existence.

But it isn’t just the NEA’s and AFT’s lack of political muscle that is causing teachers to question their ties to the union. Many are none too fond of the profligate spending by both unions on matters that have nothing to do with contract bargaining and addressing workplace grievances. Political spending and union overhead costs (including 369 employees earning six-figure sums) accounted for 64 percent of NEA’s $343 million in spending in 2013. Just 13 percent of the union’s spending went to collective bargaining and other so-called representational activities.

Younger teachers, who now make up the majority of rank-and-file members, are unhappy that the NEA and AFT ignore their concerns, including its support of last hired-first fired layoff rules that put them on unemployment lines while keeping veteran teachers on payrolls. Their desire for professional associations that focus more on helping them improve the profession puts them in direct conflict with the industrial union model that the NEA and AFT have long embraced.

Between the defections and membership losses and decline in political clout, the question for the NEA and AFT is not if they will go out of business, but when.

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