NEA Convention... The 'madness' of electing Barack Obama again while snuffing out any militancy?
NEA RA Day 3: More than Madness by Rich Gibson
When I began to wonder about what to write about today’s RA, the first thought was to use the word that four delegates, none knowing the other, used with me early in our chats today: “Madness.”
It is, in a sense, madness and boredom to boot. It’s madness in the sense that one delegate used the word, saying, “I really don’t know why nine or ten thousand NEA leaders are here spending, probably about three thousand dollars each. Nothing is going on but a re-vote for Obama. We already elected him.” That came from a seasoned NEA leader, a fellow who has taught twenty plus years, bargained contracts, led strikes, carried out successful political action campaigns, managed local offices. It’s madness in the sense another delegate used the word, “Madness, Rich, there are two wars on, probably a coup, an economic collapse, and here they start the day dancing and singing as if we already won a fight that we never engaged.”
Another delegate said, “This is nuts, Gibson, these people know nothing about why things are the way they are and when someone begins to bring it to their attention, they listen for a moment and sort of change channels.”
The last use of the madness phrase came from a California delegate whose local has worked without a contract for a year. She combined wackiness with the truly dull nature of the day: “Its just damned crazy that this is so boring. We are the biggest union in the USA and we are under attack. We should be making real plans. Instead, delegates just partially listen to terrible speeches from the top leaders and read romance novels.” O, yes, it was a dull and crazy day. I was fortunate to spend most of it in the hallways and not on the floor. It started with a mass song and dance. No kidding. And those who were not up for an early dance were harped upon until they boogied. Then the pledge, complete with color guard. What school day could begin without that incantation? Maybe that’s it. It’s just school invading the union.
Lead teacher, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel (DVR), whose reputation surely exceeds his abilities, managed to make one of the most spiritless opening speeches any RA ever suffered. However, what most delegates missed was his relentless push for unity with the “labor movement” (sic). What’s going on in a not-so-behind-the-scenes move that is still out of sight of most delegates is DVR’s continuation of the NEA’s top leadership scheme to merge NEA with the American Federation of Teachers (the most reactionary union in the USA) and the AFL-CIO, in the name of “labor solidarity.”
Since few if any of the current NEA Executive Committee, including DVR and Vice President Lily Eskelsen, come from bargaining states, have ever bargained a labor contract, never were on strike or led one — it’s easy to conclude that their sense of Solidarity is a fantasy, and it is. The AFL-CIO’s top leadership sought to destroy every major labor struggle in the history of the labor movement, from the Great Flint Strike Against GM during the last Great Depression to the Detroit Teachers’ Wildcat Strike to the Detroit Newspaper Strike to the Hormel battles, Patco, and on and on. The AFT helped organize the decay of urban education in the USA, didn’t fight it, and their leaders continue to fight people who try — as we see in Chicago today. The AFL-CIO and AFT forge a history of labor betrayal — which may be why DVR fits in so well.
The merger, which would likely cause the adoption of the AFT’s wholly undemocratic structure, may be the reason to the “Why are we here?” question. The delegates just don’t know it yet.
Well, there is the sheer entertainment. Yesterday, Michael Eric Dyson, a high priest in the Church of Postmodernism, religion with an angry cloak, told a few delegates attending his side session that every classroom in America should be teaching the brilliant life of Michael Jackson, the tragic trinket recently snuffed out. That was an amusement. Dyson has some patter. But this day droned on, and on rather like the Fugs’s song, “Monday nothing, Tuesday nothing, Wednesday Thursday nothing, nothing, nothing.....” That played in my aching head a lot.
There was limited debate about the national health care question. Some delegates tried to fight for a true single payer plan as part of NEA’s vaunted lobbying efforts (out-bribing the AMA is tough). Their struggle was just swept away as the NEA leadership on the state and national level made sure that NEA would adopt the Obama plan, whatever that may be — the tail wagging the dog again. Eskelsen’s speech introducing DVR would have been the big one of the day but for the intervention of a true politico who came with the highest recommendation from DVR himself–as, “America’s Greatest Governor.” Yes, that is a NEA Award. Bill Richardson was no tub thumper and thunder did not clap (but hold your breath). Here he came:“I thank you NEA for being patriots, for building America. Your dedication and commitment forged education in New Mexico...There is no greater service than teaching. You ARE N-E-A! Be proud of it! . ..This tough period will make us stronger...and you will be part of the solution. I h ave great hope for that. NCLB must be fixed or terminated. You all be part of this solution (ed–again). I say thank you to NEA. Years ago you gave me my start and sixteen years later I was in Bill Clinton’s cabinet. I forgive you for not endorsing me last year. This award you have given me is the greatest honor I have ever received. God bless you. Lets hear it for education and NEA!”
(Now breathe). On the organ, “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” and a standing ovation from the thrilled crowd. Yikes. Where is the Ronco guy? Then came David Sanchez, boss of the California Teachers Association, who has been careful to keep his members conducting the child abuse that is racist high-stakes standardized tests, does nothing to organize for control of the work place and communities inside his 350,000 member union.
“Thank you Dennis for your (ed—NEA’s) generous donation to our California campaign to change the tax system in California (ed–NEA and CTA spent more than $12 million of political action funds on a campaign to tax poor and working people in California, deliberately avoiding any talk of taxing the rich).
“28,000 California teachers have been notified they have lost their jobs. There may be another 20,000 by August 15. But the Governor want to take more from the schools and protect big business. We smacked Swarzenegger in 2005 and we need to school him again. We would like all of you to sign a postcard to be delivered to the Governor on Monday.”
That’ll fix Arnold. A postcard. This from 9,000 delegates assembled blocks from the backward paper, the San Diego Union Tribune UT), likely to go bankrupt, which for years demanded a market system business model for schooling and the Sunday prior to the RA ran an editorial, complete with photo, attacking the local SDEA president—for bargaining.
That those delegates could march on the UT and send a counter-message to both the Gropenfuhrer (which is still how many refer to Governor Arnold) and the UT is simply out of bounds.
But, let us do the journalist job: follow the money—briefly today. More will come on the NEA budget and their strategic plan in a wrap up article following the end of the RA.
Becky Pringle, NEA Secretary Treasure, gave the financial report.
NEA has a $355 million budget for this year. They project difficult times and are cutting corners where they can, like extending the life of computers.
DVR’s salary appears to be frozen. Still, cutting back is not exactly cutting back. The $355 million is a $9.8 million increase, up 2.8 percent. And, to close the finance issue for the day—many delegates, funded for $300 a night hotel rooms and living on fairly generous perks, are told that they are expected to kick back a given amount to the NEA “Children’s Fund,” a thinly disguised NEA political action committee.
Usually, that kick-back is around $100, or so delegates in two states told me. On arrival at the RA this year, delegates were told there was an increase — to $180. They paid. We will see on the last day of the convention how much money is collected. Some will have to be set aside for a daily drawing. One delegate won $5,000 dollars at the close of business today — keeps them in their seats. We left the arena today through a gauntlet of, maybe, two hundred volunteers screaming at the top of their voices the names of their favorites for election to the NEA Executive Committee. It was a high school student body vote scene — gone wild.
Issues and positions? What issues and positions? This is THE name to vote for (in full howl). No flyers, no statements of principles, nothing. Let’s return to today’s apparent themes: Madness and Boredom. On the surface, that’s true. And it would have been my impression of much of the day. But, Pollyanna that I may be, I see something else too. Many delegates who talk to me are far to the left of their leaders (granted, a few are rightist anti-abortion nutcases who, today, had elementary kids handing out tracts in front of the RA, complete with smashed body parts, etc). Most of them are not people who know me, Substance, or my other work. It’s a pretty random sample.
These delegates are sharply opposed to the key things going on in schools: Regimented curricula (national standards). High stakes exams. Militarization. To some extent, privatization and charters. Militarization. A culture of fear.
They desperately want the freedom to teach well. These delegates (a few are wearing t-shirts saying “A war budget leaves every child behind”...) can explain their opposition to that multi-pronged attack on schooling. They are not exactly sure why these things came to be (capitalism in crisis and war), but they know daily life in school should not be like this. They know what it means to kids, pedagogy, parents, even curiosity and mutual care. They cannot articulate why it is their leadership refuses to deal with these issues directly. Many of the delegates continue to believe in Obama, yet they reject Obama’s picks in Arne Duncan and Rahm (shouldn't we spell it "Ram"?) Emanuel. People do hold contradictory ideas all the time.
These honest, thinking (and perhaps very bored) delegates have, at the moment, no organization they know about prepared to challenge the NEA leadership, so they see nothing to do but gripe and to try to be more active in state and local groups that take sharper positions. They don’t know each other, have no vehicle they’re aware of to meet. In this bubbling, I see some hope. Or, to put it another way: When work sucks, sooner or later people will fight back. They just need to make sense of the resistance in order to win. Forthcoming—from the agenda, not much. There may be a struggle around high-stakes exams but, so far, the leadership has been well prepared with “kill debate with tedium” speeches, with deflecting arguments, encircling real opposition, praising connections with Obama, and staying on message with the “We are all in this together...” mantra that is the convention’s big lie.
Workers and bosses (and their politicians) have only contradiction in common. (Those interested in the comments on the AFL-CIO or the many strikes can visit my web site at
Text of some of the day’s speeches is at http://www.nea.org/annualmeeting/. The official NEA site is providing the official "news" from the convention, complete with a couple of press releases per day. These reports will continue with the other news, and some analysis.
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