AEA sees large membership decline

For years, the teachers unions in the southern and western states have seen their membership numbers dwindle. Wisconsin, a union stronghold, and focus of the nation’s attention, in the recall of Governor Scott Walker, has experienced a decline in membership.

No state has seen a steeper decline in dues than Arizona. The Arizona Education Association (AEA) has seen a dramatic drop in membership, with only18,300 active members out of a pool 50,000 teachers. AEA’s income fell from $7.5 million to $5.4 million in a single year, according to Politico, and the union is budgeting for less than $5.3 million in dues next year.

It is a serious drop that is causing AEA to drastically reduce its budget for next year. Much of the losses are a result of the new law prohibiting the use of payroll deduction for paying dues. However, the membership numbers were decline prior to the law.

One of the state’s largest school districts, Tucson Unified, has so few teachers in their local union, Tucson Education Association, which the district is not legally required to engage in collective bargaining. However, due to the political concerns of the Governing Board members the district continues the practice.

“But, fundamentally, people only go out of their way to pay for things that are valuable to them,” says one long time union member. “Given the ineffectiveness of the way AEA has behaved, it is no surprise that members have become former members. Wrong-headed decision making has left rank and file members out in the cold.”

Former or soon-to-be-former union members say that politics was one of the biggest reasons they dropped their membership. As the union has become more focused on electing Democratic candidates, it has done little or nothing to improve either salaries or working conditions for teachers in the classroom. Many teachers say that the AEA’s allegiance to the Democratic Party reflects neither their politics nor their priorities.

Some other NEA state affiliates have abandoned making endorsements of political candidates the norm. Instead, these affiliates are simply collecting and publishing the positions of candidates on issues of importance to rank-and-file members of the union. In addition, they are no longer making political donations to candidates except in extraordinary circumstances. This has given union members information without even the appearance of “telling members how to vote.” Additionally, by taking an even-handed approach to all candidates and allowing members to judge them based on their positions, these NEA affiliates removed themselves as targets for punitive legislation.

“They are taking our dues to fight for taxes to build roads, not buy books,” said one union member.

“Here in Tucson, and across the country, the identity politics is killing us,” said one union leader. Rich Kronberg, a former NEA leader at the local, state and national levels and a local advocate for public education, noted that the Tucson Education Association had focused its energy on restoring the old Mexican-American Studies classes that served less than 1% of the students in TUSD while being completely absent from the public debates over social promotion and TUSD budgets that sacrificed the needs of classroom teachers in order to put more money into central administration. “This failure to focus on the interests of the overwhelming majority of Tucson’s front line educators is the primary cause of the loss of union membership. So long as this continues, the Tucson Education Association and the Arizona Education Association will continue to see declines in membership.”

In an effort to shore up locals, the NEA is now increasing its aid for state and local projects by $5.6 million next year. NEA gave the AEA almost $1.3 million in 2010-11. AEA is planning on reducing that assistance by half next year.