National Education Association closes annual convention, locks up striking workers

Last Friday, the National Education Association (NEA) abruptly canceled its annual convention, scheduled for July 4-7, after just one day of formal proceedings in Philadelphia. The closure of the Representative Assembly (RA) was in response to a strike by the union representing NEA employees, the National Education Association Staff Organization (NEASO).

Protest by members of the National Education Association workers’ organization (Photo: NEASO)

In planning a three-day convention strike, NEA employees at the union’s Washington headquarters greeted delegates arriving at the Philadelphia Convention Center with pickets. NEASO’s contract expired on June 30, and the union organized the strike as an unfair labor practice.

The NEA told the media that it had decided to dissolve the RA, at a cost of $12 million, because delegates failed to cross the employee picket line. It said the convention’s main item — the New Business Objectives (NBI), which are proposed by residents and require at least 50 supporters — would not be debated but would be put to a vote at an undisclosed date. The vote would take place online.

The abrupt closure of the RA meant the cancellation of a scheduled keynote address by President Joe Biden. After his disastrous performance in the June 27 debate, Biden decided to speak at the convention instead of his previously scheduled speaker, his wife Jill, in hopes that the friendly crowd of workers would help his faltering campaign. Biden, who famously banned a railroad workers’ strike in 2022, has said he will not cross the picket line. Instead, he spoke to a much smaller crowd at a nearby church.

Educators for Palestine members and other anti-war educators also rallied at the convention before the shutdown, calling on union members to support the pro-Palestinian NBI. Local residents raised calls for digital communication tools to “educate members about the Nakba” (the brutal ethnic cleansing of Palestinians by the U.S.-backed Zionist regime in 1947-48), for the union to defend the speech of educators and students “in defense of Palestine,” and for the NEA to hold “a secret ballot to withdraw support for President Joe Biden until he stops funding the Israeli military, condemns Israel’s war crimes, and establishes an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.”

The RA’s conclusion underscores the fact that the nation’s largest union, with nearly three million members, is in a deep crisis, as are Biden and the Democratic Party. It’s also clear that the people organizing the event, which the union bills as “the largest democratic deliberative gathering in the world,” were not only hostile to actual democratic input from members, but fearful of it.

The NEASO strike was met with vindictive hostility by NEA decision-makers, even though most of the striking union members were lower-level union representatives in the NEA apparatus. The NEA bureaucracy immediately canceled the strikers’ return flights and accommodation and indefinitely deprived them of their pay and work “until an agreement is reached.” The NEA also canceled health benefits for the workers, effective July 31.

NEASO has about 350 members and is made up mostly of lower-level officials and administrative staff, many of whom “help negotiate” or do “analysis.” NEASO members earn an average of $124,000 a year, almost three times the average teacher salary but well below the highest-level union officials. Current NEA President Becky Pringle earned $495,787 in the 2022-2023 fiscal year, an increase of $64,000 from the previous year.