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Why Did the National Education Association Just Lock Out Its Own Staffers?

The US’s largest labor union has retaliated against the three-day strike of its 350 staff members.

Members of the National Education Association Staff Organization participated in a picket line outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center from July 4 to July 7, 2024.

The largest labor union in the United States is not the Teamsters, the United Auto Workers or the Steelworkers — it’s the National Education Association (NEA), which represents 3 million educators, retired educators and soon-to-be-educators across the country. Led by President Becky Pringle, the union is used to squaring off against powerful school administrators and government officials to defend its members’ interests. However, this past week, the union’s leadership shocked observers across the labor movement by taking drastic action against its own staffers.

The conflict between NEA leadership and the National Education Association Staff Organization (NEASO) has been escalating for months. NEASO was founded in 1952, and currently represents the more than 350 staff members at the union’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. who keep the NEA running. They began negotiating their next three-year agreement with NEA management on April 11, but members say it was difficult to get the management team to agree to bargaining dates; negotiations dragged on, and the two sides stayed far apart on major issues like wages, health coverage and worker safety. Their contract expired on May 31, 2024, yet members say there seemed to be no sense of urgency on the NEA’s side, and a NEASO spokesperson highlighted management’s “paltry concession offerings” at the bargaining table.

In April, NEASO members voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike, and in June they followed through with a 24-hour walkout that marked the union’s first work stoppage in 50 years. On June 20, staffers walked out and picketed in front of the union’s headquarters, holding signs that read, “NEA: Uphold Union Values!” Tensions continued to rise ahead of the NEA’s Representative Assembly, which was expected to draw nearly 7,000 educators from every state to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, from July 4-7 to discuss the union’s priorities and vote on its budget for 2024-2025. Whispers about “special visitors” to the convention only added to the widespread sense among NEASO members that this event was a priority for leadership — and, thus, the perfect time to try to get the union leaders’ attention.

As staffers weathered the whirlwind of planning the assembly, their NEASO representatives continued holding management’s feet to the fire. They filed two unfair labor practice (ULP) charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on July 1 and informed NEA management about them the next day; these came in the wake of an earlier ULP filing that charged the NEA with retaliating against a staff member. The first new charge claims that management made unilateral changes to NEASO members’ working conditions (including denying holiday pay) while the second charges that the NEA has refused to provide NEASO with information concerning its practice of using outside contractors for union-related work.

“Their failure to provide basic details about outsourcing makes us wonder what else the National Education Association is hiding,” said NEASO President Robin McLean. “For a public-service union that purports to oppose outsourcing members’ work, it is unconscionable that NEA would spend hundreds of millions of NEA member dues on contractors while union-busting and shrinking its staff unions.”

The Representative Assembly kicked off in earnest on July 4, and the next day, NEASO workers walked out on a three-day unfair labor practices strike. They called on the community to honor their picket line outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center, and many — including one rumored “special visitor” — did exactly that. President Joe Biden had been scheduled to address the convention on Sunday but canceled his appearance to avoid crossing their picket line. Meanwhile, NEA management responded by inaccurately calling the strike illegal (the no-strike clause of the past NEASO contract had expired along with the rest of it on May 31). Worse, the striking workers found themselves stranded when the NEA made the decision to cancel their hotel rooms and return flights home from the convention, and cut off access to their work emails and phones mid-trip. NEA Executive Director Kim Anderson emailed NEASO President McLean that Sunday evening to inform her that further retaliation was imminent.

By locking out its own workers, the NEA has pulled out the same kind of tactics that union-busting CEOs love to draw on to crush organized labor.

By July 7, NEA management’s brutal response to the three-day strike had culminated in an official lockout of its staff union. As Education Week reported, they’ll be barred from working — and will not be paid — until the union and NEA management reach an agreement. There is no telling when that will be, and given management’s behavior up until this point, it may take more than even a silent rebuke from the sitting president to force them to play ball.

An NEA spokesperson told Truthout in an email that the staffers had “abandon[ed] thousands of NEA members from across the country” by picketing the convention. “To best protect the interests of our members, the Association, and our staff, we have made the difficult decision to institute a protective lockout of the NEASO-represented employees to safeguard NEA’s operations,” the spokesperson added.

“NEA management’s punitive lockout of its own employees is a dangerous, reckless, and reactionary move that undermines the rights of every union worker in this country,” McLean said. “The handful of people who are tasked with running the National Education Association are trying to strong-arm its staff union into accepting a successor collective bargaining agreement by using intimidation and threats. These are clear union-busting techniques that will not be tolerated.”

By locking out its own workers, the NEA has pulled out the same kind of tactics that union-busting CEOs love to draw on to crush organized labor. Union leaders, organizers and rank-and-file members spoke out in support of the locked-out workers, including NewsGuild President Jon Schleuss. “Union values need to start at home,” he commented on X. “An illegal lockout isn’t the way forward. NEA’s leaders are actively harming the labor movement and need to reverse course ASAP.” Other unions rushed to join NEASO members at an impromptu rally in D.C. later that day in front of the NEA building.

It’s unclear what will happen next, but one union at least is prepared to put its members’ needs first and get back to work. “We engage in good-faith bargaining, and invite NEA President Becky Pringle and NEA Executive Director Kim Anderson to join us by acting in the best interest of NEA members,” McLean said.

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