A Few Things All Educators Should Know
About the National Education Association

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But the NEA Won't Tell Them

Most public school teachers, whether they are members of the National Education Association or not, are aware that in many respects the NEA is a controversial organization.

Many teachers regard their union as something apart, something in which they have little or no interest. They see union officials and union staff and the activities of their union, whether at the local, state or national level, as something over which they have no influence. They regard union dues as just part of the cost of having a job.

One of the things that makes the NEA so controversial is its use of confrontational tactics advocated by Saul Alinsky and codified in his book “Rules for Radicals.”

Saul Alinsky didn’t invent radicalism any more than Isaac Newton “invented” gravity. What Alinsky did was to study it and put it in a system others could use. He literally “wrote the book” on radicalism.

Even though he passed away 30 years ago, Alinsky continues to have a strong influence on American unions. This influence is particularly strong among public sector unions like the National Education Association and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO.

It is quite likely that the training of many public sector union organizers includes a crash course based on Alinsky's teachings. Some confirmation of this is contained in an interview with John Lloyd who was once an NEA UniServ director and the executive director of an NEA state affiliate. He warned:

"To understand the NEA - to understand the union - read Saul Alinsky. If you read "Rules for Radicals," you will understand NEA more profoundly than reading anything else. Because the whole organization was modeled on that kind of behavior which was really begun when NEA used Saul Alinsky as a consultant to train their own staff."

Because an understanding of Alinsky is so central to an understanding of the NEA, here are a few of Saul Alinsky's “Rules” taken from his book “Rules for Radicals” published in 1971 by Vintage Books.

1. Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have.

3. Whenever possible, go outside of the experience of the enemy.

4. Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules.

5. Ridicule is man's most potent weapon.

9. The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.

13. Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.

There is nothing inherently unethical about these rules but they lend themselves to applications of questionable morality.

For example, Alinsky taught organizers that: “Before men can act, an issue must be polarized. Men will act when they are convinced that their cause is 100 percent on the side of the angels and that the opposition are 100 percent on the side of the devil.”

Alinsky says that, even if the decision is a 48% to 52% one, once it is made, the opposition becomes "100 per cent devil." He calls any effort to be objective or fair about your opponent as "political idiocy."

In discussing how this applied in a particular case, Alinsky said: “Many liberals, during our attack on the then school superintendent, were pointing out that after all he wasn’t a 100 percent devil, he was a regular churchgoer, he was a good family man, and he was generous in his contributions to charity. Can you imagine in the arena of conflict charging that so-and-so is a racist bastard and then diluting the impact of the attack with qualifying remarks such as ‘He is a good churchgoing man, generous to charity and a good husband’? This becomes political idiocy.”

Alinsky emphatically states that the end justifies the means but he professed a concern about the ethics of tactics.

Here are a few of Alinsky's rules to test whether the means are ethical.

1. One's concern with the ethics of means and ends varies inversely with one's personal interest in the issue.

3. In war the end justifies almost any means.

5. Concern with ethics increases with the number of means available and vice versa.

7. Generally, success or failure is a mighty determinant of ethics.

8. The morality of means depends upon whether the means is being employed at a time of imminent defeat or imminent victory.

10. You do what you can with what you have and clothe it in moral garments.

Even a cursory review of these rules for radicals reveals that a union activist schooled in them will have no compunction about using almost any tactic in a conflict. In fact, radicals must often create issues to stir up problems in order to radicalize their potential followers.

This is exactly what unions do. A reporter who made extensive investigations into teacher union activity said, "Angry members are the currency, the stock in trade, of unionism. There is no future for a union that represents contented workers. But angry, frustrated, victimized workers who feel threatened? That you can plan your career around."

It doesn’t have to be this way. There was a time when the NEA was a professional association representing a broad spectrum of interests in public education.

In the 1960’s, in response to competition from the American Federation of Teachers, the NEA transformed itself into a radical, militant labor union.

The mechanism for consolidating control of the union was called unified dues. Before unified dues a teacher could belong to a local classroom teachers association - and most did – and to the state and national organizations.

Under unified dues, in order to belong to the local organization teachers were required to belong to the state and national, too.

This unification took place at the same time as the NEA’s transformation and the advent of laws granting teacher unions monopoly bargaining privileges.

It is a legitimate question as to whether teachers would have approved the institution of collective bargaining if there had not already been an organization in place with which the teachers were affiliated or there had been an alternative professional organization in place to point out the flaws in the process.

The NEA protects its members from the knowledge that there are competitive, non union professional educator organizations in many states and that while the number of teachers supporting the NEA is declining the number joining the professional organizations is increasing.

This is particularly true in states in several states where teachers are free from monopoly union bargaining laws. In fact, in several of these states the professional teacher organizations have larger membership than the NEA’s state affiliate.

Some indication of the NEA’s problem in this regard came to light in their 2002 national meeting when the executive director mentioned that they had appropriated millions of dollars to assist with recruiting campaigns for state affiliates that were losing membership.

For more information:

The Public Service Research Foundation cooperates with a large number of the professional educator organizations that are providing teachers with a constructive alternative to unionism. Teachers who wish to learn more about this, including “Why wouldn’t a teacher want to be a union member?” are invited to review “Teachers, Teacher Unions and Professional Alternatives: A question of Choice” on our web page under “Issue Papers.”

Foundation president David Y. Denholm has made presentations about union activities and the influence of Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” on union tactics at meetings of several of these organizations. He is available as a presenter and discussion leader on this and a variety of other topics.