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Kitchen-sink unionism

Back to School 2004 | Annual teacher gatherings focus on everything except students

Issue: "Education: Sick schools," Sept. 18, 2004

For years, the mish-mash of resolutions that spilled from the National Education Association's (NEA) annual convention resembled some sort of politically correct ideological stew-one that didn't taste much like education.

Delegates to NEA's annual gathering have in the past called for government-funded abortion, slave reparations, a new trial for a convicted cop killer, the dissolution of a military school, and a shadow committee to monitor the activities of pro-family "extremists." The hodge-podge quality of what the NEA considers its business finally led one Illinois teacher to snap, "We're . . . not the National Everything Association!" The union seems to be learning from its mistakes: At its July convention, delegates whittled down both the number and weird range of its New Business Items, known in NEA jargon as "NBI." Mike Antonucci, head of NEA watchdog Education Intelligence Agency, said: "The union has been burned so many times in a public-relations sense from having off-the-wall new-business items that they're gun-shy." But gun-shyness didn't stop some NEA delegates from offering resolutions that careened wildly off-target in a collection Mr. Antonucci described as "wackier than last year, but not as wacky as in past years." For example:

NBI 30 Encourage NEA to establish a "chemical/scent-free" environment at NEA meetings and functions. That meant no one could wear cologne or perfume. ACTION: Defeated

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NBI 40: Remove Ward Connerly from the University of California Board of Regents. The NEA opposes Mr. Connerly because he opposes affirmative action and favors a color-blind approach to college admissions and government hiring. ACTION: Withdrawn. •

NBI 47 Oppose reinstatement of the military draft, which denies "basic human rights" to students. "We work to educate our students to serve their interests, not so that they can be used to fight imperialist wars abroad or to enforce oppressive laws such as the Patriot Act at home." ACTION: Referred to an executive committee.

NBI 26: Support international pressure to demand the Sudanese government "stop its efforts to displace and starve native populations." Many delegates thought this resolution well beyond the scope of NEA's interests. But one California delegate, who said he was a native of Darfur, claimed all reports of slavery, civil war, and abuse of Sudanese Christians were "misinformation and propaganda" used as a prelude to a U.S. invasion for Sudan's oil. ACTION: Defeated.

NBI 12: Oppose required testing for grade promotion or high-school graduation. ACTION: Passed. Later the same month, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT)-the nation's other major teachers union-passed its pack of random resolutions. Only about half of the resolutions related to schools, students, or learning. For example, delegates this year adopted a resolution titled "Marriage Equality" that directs AFT to support marriage for all persons "regardless of sex, gender-identity, sexual orientation, or affectional preference." AFT also passed resolutions:

FOR "No-lifting" policies for workers in healthcare settings.

AGAINST President Bush's flawed policies in Iraq.

FOR reform of the Patriot Act.

FOR abolition of the Electoral College.

AGAINST the suppression of democracy and worker rights in Hong Kong.

AFT resolutions called for unionizing Wal-Mart, for boycotting Wal-Mart, and for blocking the chain's expansion-presumably until it submits to collective bargaining. The measures point up AFT's unabashedly "labor union" image, in contrast with that of the NEA, which has long tried to portray itself as a community-minded professional organization working in the best interests of children and parents.

AFT's union bent became particularly clear to Mr. Antonucci, who attended both conventions this year. During a riveting debate on a resolution on "Work-Related Musculoskeletal Injuries," he said, "I experienced one myself. . . . My shoulders began to droop, and my neck muscles would no longer support the weight of my head, causing it to drop to the table in front of me. My eyelid muscles also failed, and I soon lost consciousness. At the end of the debate, I revived, feeling curiously refreshed."

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