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.”

DVR at the NEA RA, which is being pushed into mergers with the AFT and AFL-CIO. Each day begins with the Pledge of Allegiance and some dancing. Substance photo by Amber Goslee.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: New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson (above, speaking two years ago to the "Yearly Kos" convention while he was still a candidate for President of the United States) received the NEA award as the nation's best governor at the July 2009 RA. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.“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.

Two years ago, the NEA was giving away thousands of tee shirts opposing the Bush administration's education program, No Child Left Behind. Above, NEA volunteers are seen distributing tee shirts from the NEA reading "No Child Left Behind Had Enough?" to people at the "Yearly Kos" convention in Chicago in August 2007. By 2009, the NEA was supporting President Barack Obama and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan who are pushing a program for American education which many teachers (and NEA delegates) consider a more dangerous attack on public schools than anything Bush did. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.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 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. 

Final edited version of this article posted at July 3, 2009, 1:00 p.m. CDT. If you choose to reproduce this article in whole or in part, or any of the graphical material included with it, please give full credit to SubstanceNews as follows: Copyright © 2009 Substance, Inc., Please provide Substance with a copy of any reproductions of this material and we will let you know our terms. We are asking all of our readers to either subscribe to the print edition of Substance (a bargain at $16 per year) or make a donation. Both options are available on the right side of our Home Page. For further information, feel free to call us at our office at 773-725-7502.


July 4, 2009 at 10:23 AM

By: Liz C.

Are you jealous, George?

Ok, I am an avid reader (I don't usually post, I just keep up on the news) but I felt compelled to post at this time. George, take a look at your home page and see if there is something curious about it. Need help? All but 2 stories are about Arne Duncan!!! We all know how you feel about him being Secretary of Education; however, this is becoming a bit of an obsession. As a CPS teacher and Union member, I am also completely against charters. I agree with you on your stance; however, this is getting rediculous. I keep looking on this site every day in hopes of reading about what is happening around CPS (in CPS schools where we have plenty of problems) and all I keep seeing is the regirgitation of the same information and bias you have story after story. PLEASE!!! Give us more than Arne Duncan! What about this Coonley story you keep mentioning in the blogs? Where is it? OR What about the situation at Field, I have seen nothing about this? Come on, I know you will continue to report on him, but seriously, does your entire home page have to be filled with him? Probably not, especially considering much of it is exactly the same information over and over.

July 4, 2009 at 11:56 AM

By: George N. Schmidt

Exporting Chicago's lies is big news

Chicago's village idiot has now become a national scourge. We owe it to a lot of people who need to know elsewhere now that Arne is on the road with Newt Gingrich and Al Sharpton (rented for a half million dollars by some hedge fund guy from New York City to promote charter schools, deregulation, and privatization). Arne's lies are big news across the 50 states and the territories, as is the "Turnaround" scam and a lot else the first infected Chicago and is now going nationwide.

As to Field and Coonley... Field has yet to send us anything. We reported that they were involved in that strange Saturday meeting with Skippy back in June. We're still waiting to hear more from them.

Coonley and Kartheiser. Now that will be fun, especially with the new "Gifted" stuff there for the benefit of what were once rising property values out by St. Ben's. Coonley is going to be in the print edition before it goes up here.

But if you read closely in the four days since the Home Page went from June to July, we've also broke the Gwendolyn Brooks High School story and updated on Prescott.

I'd urge a quick read of the material Rich Gibson and Stephen Krashen are sending in from afar. As the Home Page evolves each month, a large amount of it will be breaking news. Stay tuned for the Huberman Putsch. Sadly, a lot of the people at 125 S. Clark who were afraid to subscribe to our print edition now won't have the money to afford it unless Illinois unemployment benefits are increased. Last time I was laid off, they were dismal. And COBRA is too expensive for most families. We had to go off it because it was costing more per month than our mortgage payment.

Have your friends send tips and we'll see if they grow into news stories. But on the record.

July 4, 2009 at 12:05 PM

By: Carol Caref

NEA convention

Rich, thanks for reporting about the NEA convention--important stuff. Today's article makes me wonder--no opposition? Where is the Peace and Justice Caucus? Where are the California teachers who have walked out, hunger striked, and rallied against the budget cuts? Are you saying no one is there raising important issues in an organized way? If that's true, then "shame on us" in the movement (and I'm including myself). We need to plan to be there next year.

July 7, 2009 at 1:00 AM

By: Jim Vail

Are you Jealous?

My response to Are You Jealous? Do you mean is George jealous of Arne? Is that supposed to be funny? Who is reporting the facts about the alleged "education miracle" from Chicago other than Substance? When the NY Times and all the other big media report what Arne wants to do with low-income schools across the country as he did in Chicago - nobody is reporting the facts about this supposed miracle.

Yes, it is important to follow Arne and report what he is saying, and put this into context. This is literally the enemy of teachers taking his disastrous program and using stimulus dollars to promote charters and other unproven methods across the country.

You could say the same thing about the media when we first bombed Bagdad- why the obsession over Iraq? Well, we're at war here too where the very existence of the teachers unions are at stake. The very existence of quality teaching in low-income communities is at stake (why are charters filled with only young teachers, many uncertified, if they truely care about quality education for all?)

In terms of other news happening in CPS - Substance is at the forefront. It shows first of all that you probably do not read the print edition becuase Substance has covered many stories in Chicago - Prescott disaster, Aspira charter disaster, whistle blower Perspectives disaster, NY charter problems, house of delegates meetings, Board of Education meetings, Core program, UPC problems, etc, etc.

Shame on you for unfairly criticizing the best educational media analysis of the corrupt Chicago system. If you paid less attention to what the corporate media is saying about teachers and charters and Duncan, and more to an analysis or critique of this stuff, you'd think more before slamming a website that is now the third most widely read website on education news out of Chicago, following the Sun Times and Chicago Tribune.

Unlike the first two, Substance is not bankrupt, but it needs subscribers from people like you who care enough to fight and inform our readers about what to look out for.

Add your own comment (all fields are necessary)

Substance readers:

You must give your first name and last name under "Name" when you post a comment at We are not operating a blog and do not allow anonymous or pseudonymous comments. Our readers deserve to know who is commenting, just as they deserve to know the source of our news reports and analysis.

Please respect this, and also provide us with an accurate e-mail address.

Thank you,

The Editors of Substance

Your Name

Your Email

What's your comment about?

Your Comment

Please answer this to prove you're not a robot:

4 + 2 =