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Former NEA General Counsel: NEA is effective not because it cares about children, but because it has “power”

A clip from a retirement speech by the National Education Association’s former General Counsel Bob Chanin, is making the rounds on social media again thanks to Chanin’s blunt admission that the NEA is “effective” because it has “power,” thanks to the “hundreds of millions of dollars in dues” it collects.

“Despite what some of us would like to believe, it is not because of our creative ideas” that the NEA and its affiliates are “effective advocates,” he says. “It is not because of the merit of our positions. It is not because we care about children. And it is not because we have a vision of a great public school for every child. NEA and its affiliates are effective advocates because we have power. And we have power because there are more than 3.2 million people who are willing to pay us hundreds of millions of dollars in dues each year because they believe that we are the union that can most effectively represent them.”

Chanin’s use of the word “willing” is misleading. He gave the speech in 2009, when the NEA was still collecting both dues from members as well as agency fees from non-members. Seven years later, the Supreme Court would recognize the First Amendment right of teachers and other public employees not to have to pay a union, ending the collection of agency fees.

Chanin’s frank admission that NEA’s political power came from its ability to collect money from millions of teachers and other employees may have inadvertently helped his opponents.

But that isn’t the only section of the speech—the entirety of which is available on the NEA’s YouTube channel—that stands out 12 years after it was first given.

Chanin also has some choice words for conservatives, calling them “right-wing bastards” who target the NEA because of its “success” in advocating for a liberal agenda. 

“Why are these conservative and right-wing bastards picking on NEA and its affiliates?” he asked, to cheers from the audience. “I will tell you why. It is the price we pay for success. NEA and its affiliates have been singled out because they are the most effective unions in the United States, and they are the nation’s leading advocates for public education and the type of liberal social and economic agenda that these groups find unacceptable.”

Chanin does say later in his speech that the NEA and its affiliates were interested in helping students, but he makes it clear that if helping students comes at the expense of union power, it was “too high a price to pay.”

“This is not to say that the concern of NEA and its affiliates of closing achievement gaps, reducing dropout rates, improving teacher quality and the like are unimportant and inappropriate. To the contrary,” he said, “these are the goals that guide the work we do. But they need not and must not be achieved at the expense of due process, employee rights, and collective bargaining. That is simply too high a price to pay.”

In his speech, Chanin also claims that the NEA evolved from a professional association for teachers into a full-bore “industrial-style” labor union after a 1960s battle between the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in New York City. The NEA initially had more members in the city, but they lost out to AFT by a 3-to-1 margin when the city held a certification election. This is around the time Chanin started working for the NEA, and over his more than 40-year career he said he saw it change from a “do-nothing” organization into a political and ideological “powerful” enterprise.

“When all is said and done, NEA and its affiliates must never lose sight of the fact that they are unions, and what unions do first and foremost is represent their members,” he says. 

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.