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National Teachers Unions Look to the South

The national teachers unions continue to push for gains in the South after successfully pressuring politicians in Virginia to allow collective bargaining at the local level, making it easier for the unions to attract new members. But the latest tactic of Southern union boosters–to invite the more progressive American Federation of Teachers (AFT) to organize new chapters in the South–may end up backfiring, according to a North Carolina education policy expert.

The state affiliates of the National Education Association (NEA) have lost members in several Southern states in recent years. Membership in the NEA affiliate in South Carolina was down 20% over the past five years, while membership in North Carolina was down 27%.

It’s somewhat surprising then that a former Democratic candidate for state superintendent in North Carolina, Jen Mangrum, recently started a private Facebook group to try to recruit teachers to join the AFT. The AFT has long been considered the more progressive of the national teachers unions, partially because of its membership in the AFL-CIO and also its because it is seen as a traditional labor union, while NEA considers itself a professional association.

EducationNC reported that Mangrum started a the Facebook group, NC Voices for Public Schools, and that she was using it to try to attract teachers to AFT. In her posts, Mangrum repeatedly praised AFT President Randi Weingarten and said she was excited to hear about Mangrum’s efforts, according to EducationNC.

Mangrum may be trying to capitalize on unrest within the NCAE led by teachers who want the state union to take more militant action, said Dr. Terry Stoops, director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation, a think tank in North Carolina.

“I believe that there is a segment of the NCAE population that truly wants even more radical action than what is proposed by the current leadership,” said Stoops. “There are continual calls for a strike, but even if it were legal for the group to strike, the NCAE is ill-equipped for carrying one out.”

The teachers union has lost more than just membership over the past several years, according to Stoops. They’ve also lost influence at the statehouse, largely because of their adversarial approach to Republican lawmakers, who hold a majority in the legislature.

“The NCAE leaders are taking their cues not from their membership but from the Democratic Party,” said Stoops. “They’ve been bleeding members for years, and during that time they’ve moved from the political center to the political left.”

Part of the reason the state teachers union has had a hard time recruiting new members is because of the union’s very public stance against school choice, including the expansion of charter schools, and the primary growth in student enrollment in North Carolina is happening at charters, he said.

Instead of toning down their militancy in response to membership losses, teachers union officials at the national and state level have doubled down on their activist approach to politics. This was evident in the Red for Ed campaign, which was funded by the national unions. The campaign was meant to look like a grassroots effort, but it was actually a grasstops campaign run by the unions in conjunction with progressive activists.

A Harvard Political Review article details how the unions have used campaigns like Red for Ed to promote progressive candidates in conservative-leaning states, including in the South.

Mangrum’s push to bring the AFT into North Carolina may drive a wedge between the NEA and AFT. The AFT also recently started a chapter in Kentucky, which will likely compete with the NEA chapter there. Whether the NEA will respond to the AFT’s incursions in the South remains to be seen.

Suzanne Bates

Suzanne Bates is Senior Writer and Researcher with Americans for Fair Treatment, a community of current and former public-sector workers offering resources and support to exercise their First Amendment rights. Prior to joining Americans for Fair Treatment in 2020, Suzanne worked as a journalist for the Associated Press, as Policy Director with the Yankee Institute, as a contributor for The Hartford Courant, and as a regular commentator for WNPR’s The Wheelhouse.