The Political Power of Teachers’ Unions

Written by Robyn Wright ’13

Illustration: Teacher at chalkboard

Unfortunately, neither Democrats nor Republicans seem to support teachers’ unions. Our final week in Election 2012 focused on education, which was of great interest to me as my mother is teacher and member of the National Education Association.

During the summer of 2011, I had the opportunity to spend a week volunteering for the NEA (National Education Association) in Chicago during its national convention. It was during this week that the delegates overwhelmingly voted to endorse Barack Obama for the 2012 election.

I don’t remember all the details about the debate that preceded this vote, but I do remember one delegate from Colorado frustrated as he made his case that the NEA was endorsing Obama too soon. His argument was simple—if the NEA held out another year, perhaps that could drive the president to do more for its cause.

Wisconsin, in particular, was not in favor of waiting another year. After all, Governor Scott Walker had just outlawed unions in that state. While Democrats have not done much to support teachers’ unions, at least they’re not trying to destroy them.

Although there are several teachers’ unions in the state of Illinois, there are two big national unions: the NEA and AFT (American Federation of Teachers). Together, these two organizations have close to 5 million members, and combined have donated over $80 million to the campaigns. The NEA alone ranks #5 in top campaign donors, but together the two organizations are #1.

I asked my mother as an Illinois NEA representative if she knew this fact, but surprisingly she did not. This made me reflect on the Colorado delegate…perhaps he was right and the union should have held out one more year. It seems as though the NEA as a whole doesn’t realize how much power it has in this campaign.

One can only imagine how the campaign season would have been different if the Obama endorsement had not passed in 2011. If Democrats want the continued support of the NEA, they better start paying teachers’ unions a bit more respect.

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