The nation's largest teachers' union is attempting to revive a fundamental labor principle: organizing.
With its membership down by more than 230,000 members over the past three years, the National Education Association is imploring local affiliates to better engage current and potential members. It has launched a Center for Organizing to provide tools and training, has put millions of dollars behind local affiliates' plans, and is pushing regional support staff to lead the charge.
Not since the 1970s, when its teachers helped win public-sector collective bargaining laws across the country, has organizing been such a priority for the 3 million-member NEA. What's more, the union is promoting membership as an avenue to better teaching and learning conditions, rather than relying on traditional recruitment drives.
"I can stand here until you sign a membership form, but the minute I leave, you need to see the value in that engagement," summarized Jim Testerman, the director of the NEA Center for Organizing, of the case he expects organizers to make.
The work is not without its challenges, union officials acknowledge. Among them is getting affiliates who have been locked into a "service" mentality — handling grievances and collective bargaining — to add the more active role of organizing to their "to do" list.
Put another way, the NEA's membership losses may have been caused by outside forces such as the economy and hostile politicians. But building itself up again will be a deeply internal process, one requiring the union to confront both the fundamentals of how it does business and negative public perceptions of its work.
"The question in my mind is, how does the NEA effectively organize to make public school teaching a good brand again?" said Charles Taylor Kerchner, a research professor at Claremont Graduate University, in Claremont, Calif. "It is very clear that it has lost the battle of the op-ed pages." (Mr. Kerchner writes an opinion blog on edweek.org.)
Fueled by anti-collective-bargaining legislation, the Great Recession, and retirements, the NEA's membership began shrinking in the 2010-11 school year. So far, the trajectory hasn't turned around. And replacing those members is not as easy as finding a pool of new, nonunionized workers.
Historically, one limitation has been the NEA's restrictions on who could join. Until recently, it wouldn't accept any nonpublic school personnel as members, effectively putting the kibosh on any incentive local affiliates had to organize workers outside that field. (The 1.5 million-member American Federation of Teachers, by contrast, is now the second-largest nurses' union in the United States.)
That has since changed. A 2010 amendment to the NEA's constitution made each state affiliate the "gateway" into union membership. Now, if a state chooses to organize in a new field — say health-care aides or graduate students — the national union recognizes those members, too.
Within public education, NEA officials see opportunities to recruit more paraprofessionals, higher education faculty, and charter school teachers. But there are still challenges, some partially of the union's own making.
For one, observers say, the NEA's organizing skills got rusty during the boom years of the 1990s, when class-size-reduction initiatives and flush budgets helped pushed up membership. For another, "agency fee" laws in some states that compel nonmembers to pay some portion of bargaining costs assured that the union won dollars, but not always loyalty, from teachers.
"People actually had to pay for the service they were using, but on the other hand, it meant [the NEA] didn't have to worry about organizing new members," said Julia Koppich, a San Francisco-based independent consultant who has written extensively about unions.
For the Clark County Education Association, in Nevada, the recession and a wave of baby boom retirements have served as a wake-up call. The union saw the percent of teachers who were members fall from 70 percent to 62 percent in just seven years — edging closer to the halfway mark that would stop the district from having to recognize it as a bargaining unit.
"We could not do business as we had in the past," said John Vellardita, the 11,000-member union's executive director. "Overnight, we had to get into the field, because we were irrelevant. People didn't know who we were or what we stood for. We hadn't been in the buildings in years."
One problem: About 90 percent of the union's resources were spent handling the 750 or so teachers each year who had complaints or grievances, rather than on initiatives to appeal to all teachers.
To change that, the Clark County union, which covers Las Vegas, launched a program to identify leaders in each school who could help engage teachers around issues of importance to them, and it began using focus groups and data analytics to uncover what teachers wanted from the union.
One early breakthrough was realizing that, in the wake of budget cuts and reductions to professional development, teachers were desperate for training on how to work with the district's diverse student population. So the union crafted modules on teaching English-language learners, cultural competency, and classroom management. Some 3,400 teachers have participated.
Based on its data, the association has expanded efforts to begin mentoring for new teachers. And increasingly, it's using organizing techniques to help teachers engage in political issues. For example, some 8,000 teachers, both members and nonmembers, signed up to receive text alerts during the most recent legislative session asking them to contact lawmakers during key legislative votes. By keeping track of engagement patterns, the union also determines who's most likely to respond to a membership query.
The values proposition undergirding such endeavors is that the union isn't just there to protect someone who gets into trouble: It also can provide an avenue to being better at one's job, and its advocacy can help secure a more supportive teaching environment.
"There are limitations to how big a pay raise you can negotiate for people or tweak the work rules that have been around for 25 years for people's benefit. Then you have to look at other possibilities; one of them is to embrace high-quality professional work," said Steve Owens, the secretary-treasurer of the Vermont-NEA. "People spend a lot of time teaching, and if they are successful with their children and their students and achieving success, their lives are better."
At the national level, the NEA's Center for Organizing, created in 2012 from the reorganization of several departments, is providing vital assistance to the efforts. The center gives out some $3.5 million annually in financial support to local affiliates and has some 50 staffers in the field who work with local affiliates to help execute organizing plans.
In Loudoun County, Va., the local affiliate president, Joey Mathews, had NEA support in a bid to counter what his 3,300-member association saw as rampant underfunding by the district. The association tapped parents and community organizations such as local PTA chapters as well as members to oppose cuts to the district's fiscal 2015 budget.
An NEA representative assigned to the undertaking helped train staff members on how to canvass, devise an organizing strategy, and create a database to house contact information on community supporters, now with some 9,000 names. Hundreds of teachers and community members came to county budget meetings and spoke against reductions.
The advocacy seems to have worked, up to a point. School board officials approved the superintendent's budget request without cutting it, as they had in previous cycles. But the county's board of supervisors reduced the final amount by nearly $40 million.
The association has vowed to keep the pressure on the panels and is eyeing upcoming elections for county office. "We have started door-to-door canvassing, and we're continuing with it to keep people involved," Mr. Mathews said.
The shift toward an organizing culture has not been easy or seamless. One ongoing question concerns the NEA's staff-assistance program, UniServ, which consists of about 1,700 locally based generalists who have historically helped teachers keep their certificates current, fielded grievances, and provided bargaining support.
In some locations, UniServ staff also are now providing the muscle behind sustained organizing efforts, but not all share the requisite skills set or inclination yet.
"The UniServ model is based on the service model — they handle the problem when it comes in. So we had to take that culture and turn it inside out and say the role of staff is now to train and empower member leaders," said Mr. Vellardita of Clark County. "Folks get it at an intellectual level, but to execute it in practice is a different thing. If a staff person has been trained to do the work in this way for many years, it's not easy to make this transformation overnight."
There are parallels for elected governance, too. Working in an organizing culture takes a greater time commitment, especially as weekends and summers become devoted to training and planning, Mr. Mathews of the Loudoun County affiliate said.
"You have people that get on the [union's] board, and they like the idea of being in the spotlight ... but don't really think that there's much work to it," he said. "Changing over to something like this — it is a lot of work. It is a lot of extra time. Getting the buy-in is your number-one thing to do and probably your biggest obstacle when you start out."
So what has the organizing push yielded so far?
In Loudoun County, Mr. Mathews believes the efforts have helped stem attrition. Recent increases to some teachers' health-care premiums had the union fearing that it could lose nearly a fifth of its members; instead, it has lost only about 40 members, he said.
In Clark County, officials say they've attracted more than 2,000 new members in the past two years and seen an uptick in the number of former members who are returning.
NEA officials say they see similar patterns elsewhere.
"In the places we've touched in the past 2½ years, we were able to slow down or stop the rate of bleeding," Mr. Testerman said.
Not all are convinced, though, that all of the NEA's affiliates will embrace the push to organize. "What you've got [are examples] that organizing is occurring, not a movement," Mr. Kerchner cautioned.
But, as Mr. Vellardita noted, organizing is a long game.
"Part of what we have to do is inoculate staff to have a protracted view of the work," he said. "Things don't happen in one semester, one school year. You have to look at the work in terms of three years, five years, 10 years."