Every year at this time, delegates from all fifty states, the District of Columbia, and American territories and bases overseas gather over the Independence Day weekend at the NEA Annual Meeting and Representative Assembly. There can’t be many organizations that take that many people to an event over a holiday weekend, but it’s worked for NEA for decades. Here’s your guide to the Annual Meeting.
NEA is the country’s largest professional organization and largest labor union (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Education_Association), consisting of 3.2 million educators from schools, colleges, board of developmental disabilities, county service centers, and other education agencies around the country.
Most NEA members belong to local affiliates. Every NEA local affiliate with 76 or more members is allowed to elect at least one delegate to the Representative Assembly, and locals that are even smaller can cluster together to send a delegate. The result is a very large assembly, usually between 8,000 and 10,000 voting delegates and several thousand guests and staff members.
The Annual Meeting is actually a group of meetings (http://www.nea.org/grants/1357.htm) built around the Representative Assembly. This year’s RA runs from July 2 through July 5, but other meetings started last weekend. Although our bus took us to Chicago on June 29, some Ohio delegates have been here for several days already. The RA is the main event, however, partly because of its size and partly due to what I might call its character.
Its size makes the NEA RA the largest voting deliberative body in the world. The RA is the size of the Republican and Democratic Party conventions combined—and NEA does it every year rather than every four years.
Even more striking is the hyper-democratic (note the small “d”) character of the RA. During the four days that the RA meets, the delegates are seated together in one (very large) hall where they can see each other, debate the various issues, and vote. Unlike the political party conventions, any delegate can propose an issue and speak about it from the floor; state leaders don’t control access to the microphone. And each delegate votes as an individual: state chairs don’t cast votes on behalf of their delegations. Most voting is done by voice, but occasionally an issue will be so close that it will require counting the votes. In a group this size, the process typically takes about an hour, but fortunately votes don’t have to be counted very often.
It’s widely anticipated that the hottest issue at this year’s RA will be a proposal to make an early endorsement in the 2012 Presidential race. Presidential endorsements have been part of the RA’s business since delegates endorsed Jimmy Carter in 1976. In Presidential election years, the RA meets in Washington, partly to make it easier for endorsed candidates to pay a visit to the RA and thank delegates for the endorsement. (John Kerry and Barack Obama didn’t do that in 2004 and 2008, causing some irritation among the delegates.)
NEA procedures reserve endorsement authority to the RA. Generally by the time the RA meets, party primaries are over, and it’s pretty obvious whom the major political parties will nominate, so NEA has had little impact on party nominations themselves. By the time July rolls around in Presidential election years, delegates have had a pretty simple choice. This year’s proposal represents an attempt to have the endorsement be more than an afterthought.
The only political thing that irritates NEA delegates more than the failure of endorsed candidates to appear at the RA is the Republican Party’s flight from public education. Although unions are commonly assumed to be overwhelmingly Democratic, that is not universally true, and large numbers of NEA members are registered Republicans. It is a source of frustration for them that both George W. Bush (2004) and John McCain (2008) declined to meet with NEA screening committees, effectively forfeiting any opportunity to contest the NEA endorsement.
In 2007–at the RA before the 2008 Presidential primaries–NEA shook things up a bit by inviting all of the candidates from both parties to speak to the delegates. Barack Obama spoke, but so did Democrats Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Christopher Dodd, Dennis Kucinich, and Bill Richardson, and Republican Mike Huckabee. By July 2008, it was clear that Obama and McCain would represent their parties. The delegates chose Obama; McCain’s refusal to meet with NEA screeners made their choice easier.
So this year, NEA’s Board of Directors has voted to place before the delegates a motion to endorse President Obama now, presumably so that the endorsement can have some effect on next year’s campaign. How this will be received by the delegates is anyone’s guess, and I’ll save any speculation for a future article. But it’s clear that this decision will generate more interest than many of the other topics that likely to come up.