By Ian Tuttle
Here’s an amusing story that has gone almost entirely unnoticed:
If you happen to be on 16th Street in D.C., you might catch some “informational picketing” going on outside the headquarters of the National Education Association. The NEA, which represents 3.2 million public schoolteachers and support personnel, higher education faculty and staff, retired educators, and students preparing to teach, is the largest labor union in the country.
The protesters? They’re from the NEA Staff Organization, the NEA’s in-house labor union representing just over 400 NEA employees.
That’s right. It’s a union picketing a union.
The source of the current brouhaha is the ongoing struggle to hammer out a new three-year contract for the NEA’s headquarters staff, whose current contract will expire at the end of the month. Sara Robertson, spokesman for the NEASO Communications Committee declined to comment on specifics while negotiations continue, but there is good reason to believe that seniority is a crucial issue.
The parties appear to be at odds over whether time spent working as a temporary hire, before being hired on permanently, should be included in determining an employee’s length of service. The NEA’s policy has been, according to the March 8, 2012, issue of “NEASO Matters” (the most recent public update on the negotiations), “to ‘terminate’ the service of a temporary employee and ‘rehire’ the same employee in a permanent position — thus recognizing the ‘new’ hire date as the ‘last date of hire.’” NEASO president Branita Griffin Henson noted, in the update, that since “this is a very serious matter,” the NEASO filed a grievance and, skipping over the first step in NEASO’s standard dispute-resolution procedures (“an informal effort to resolve disputes”), “asked for expedited arbitration.”
The urgency of Griffin Henson’s announcement — she notes that the grievance is the first filed in her tenure as president — suggests that seniority is a crucial issue in the current debate. Which, as The New Republic’s Timothy Noah observes, would be ironic, since seniority has been a “flashpoint in the ongoing debate between the NEA and education-reform-minded politicians.”
The NEA’s homepage currently features an article by organization president Dennis Van Roekel entitled, “Layoffs and Budgets Cuts: The Math Doesn’t Add Up,” tellingly subtitled, “Taking on the ‘anti-seniority’ crowd.” Van Roekel argues that schools that for financial reasons fire more experienced (and thus higher-paid) teachers before lower-salaried novices do a grave disservice to students:
So for the anti-seniority crowd, tell me again how fewer experienced teachers in schools that serve the poorest students is the answer? Do we really want an endless churn in our classrooms? . . . Teaching is a complex profession, and experience matters.
But why, then, the double standard when it comes to NEA hiring procedures? Why is “experience” as a temporary employee disregarded in the permanent hiring process? Why does the NEA refuse its employees the same seniority-based protections it advocates for its teachers?
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