Global Sweatshop Resources

NEA President Bob Chase responds to his critics.

March 13, 1997

Dear Terry,

Thank you for your letter of March 5 regarding your concerns, and those of the WEAC Board of Directors. … They are greatly appreciated. …

I had several reasons for giving the Press Club speech. One reason, of course was to serve notice to the country and our members, in a dramatic way, that NEA is heading in a new, more assertive, direction regarding the national debate on professional issues and education reform. Judging from the reaction so far from around the country, that goal is being accomplished.

I believe, as do most friends of NEA, that NEA simply cannot afford to continue standing along the sidelines of the education reform debate, because the forces arrayed against NEA are most often the same forces that are arrayed against the very idea of public education in America. NEA has a strong, credible, and well-deserved reputation as a union and a political force. We worked hard to achieve our union and political reputation, and it has served us well to now.

However, according to polls, critics, friends, the media, as well as our own members, NEA does not possess anything approaching a strong and credible voice in the education reform debate. That reality for NEA is not only alarming, but also dangerous for public education. Without a strong, credible voice in this arena, NEA cannot continue to protect public education; if we cannot protect public education, we cannot protect our members and their jobs. Of equal significance for this country: without a strong, vibrant, improved public education system, millions of children will be shortchanged in their effort to be productive citizens. …

It is very important for you and your Board to note, Terry, that in all those speeches and discussions [that I gave when running for NEA President], I always, without exception, pointed out that NEA must never abandon its principles of unionism, collective bargaining, due process, and advocacy for our members. Since being elected NEA President, I have continued to speak clearly about the belief. … My commitment to new unionism in no way abandons my commitment to unionism. …

As far as your admonition that I am moving the current balance between “member advocacy” and “professional” issues dramatically toward professionalism, you are absolutely correct. I believe that NEA must focus much more attention to the professional side of our organizational equation, while maintaining our strong commitment to the advocacy side. I believe that is necessary because for the last twenty-five years or so, we have allowed our union role to dominate at the expense of our professional, educational role. This professional atrophy has created many problems for our members who struggle every day with non-traditional union issues, and are desperately looking to NEA for new directions, new leadership and guidance. …

… I know these are difficult issues, but it will do none of us any good to avoid the harsh reality of the current educational climate. The public is rapidly losing confidence in America’s public schools, and as confidence fades, privatization, in one form or another, appears more and more viable to the public. …

Of tremendous consequence is the equally sobering fact that NEA is not viewed by virtually anyone in the education, political, social environment as a creative, positive, and influential leader in making America’s public schools better. Quite the contrary, NEA is increasingly viewed as an obdurate and powerful protector of the status quo, which translates to the average citizen as the protector of bad public education. Even worse than being seen as irrelevant, we are seen as part of the problem. All the wishing in the world and all the organizational chest pounding we can muster will not change that fact.

If we are to protect our members’ jobs, I believe it is folly to continue demanding that NEA think and function the same way as in the past, while the education industry itself is verging on collapse. That’s what the steel unions did, and when the steel industry died, so did the jobs of hundreds of thousands of steel workers. If we in education are so charmed to the past that we can only do things the same way as always, public education as we have known it will soon become extinct, so will members’ jobs, so will the ability of kids to get an education regardless of economic and social status.

I believe that if we are to advocate effectively for our members in the contemporary and future environments, NEA and its state affiliates must be powerful and credible. I want NEA to be both, but we will soon be neither if we continue to think and behave only as we have for the past quarter century. NEA can do better than simply defend the status quo. We cannot stand pat, because the stakes for children, members, and the country are much too high.


Bob Chase

President, NEA