COLUMBUS, Ohio – Last week I shared some of the remarks NEA president Lily Eskelsen Garcia made to the Ohio Education Association Representative Assembly earlier this month. OEA president Becky Higgins also addressed the assembly, and her comments were worthy of our attention as well.

Higgins spoke of a meeting an OEA committee had with Dan Burkhalter, the former executive director of the Wisconsin Education Association Council. Burkhalter was in charge during the period that Act 10, the legislation that severely restricted teachers’ collective bargaining in the state, was passed. Higgins recounted his words:

He used the analogy of a tree, and he said before their troubles began, he thought that the Wisconsin Education Association tree was solid. Its core was strong. The roots were in the ground and nothing could topple it.

But then along came that mighty, mighty storm, and quickly the 100,000-member Wisconsin tree was toppled, just like that. In one fell swoop, they lost everything. Gone. The tree that they thought was solid and would never fall fell, and fell hard.

Where three years ago there were over a hundred thousand members, today, there are 40,000. Where once they had a staff along the same lines as OEA, they now have a staff of less than 20. Their power and influence, he says, are virtually gone.

And one of the main reasons he said this happened, why their tree toppled, was because they couldn’t or wouldn’t confront the brutal truth. They were not willing to see where the weaknesses were and then take steps to make the changes necessary to make their tree healthy. And when I say they, I don’t mean just the officers and staff. I mean the members of the Wisconsin Education Association.

He told us one of the myths that happened during their fight. I’m sure you all saw many times those rallies and demonstrations at the statehouse, where you saw all of the hundreds of thousands of people, day in and day out, over those weeks down at the statehouse. And in my mind, I was thinking, those are all members of the Wisconsin Education Association down there rallying. I thought it was all of the members that were down there.

He said, though, in reality, when the tree fell and they looked back, during those times of rallies under those hundreds of thousands, day in and day out, it is estimated that only about 10,000 of their members actually were at that statehouse throughout the whole time.

So what I thought and what most people thought wasn’t really happening. Most of those demonstrators were from other groups. They were not the teachers.

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Higgins went on to tell of the impending agency fee case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. NEA affiliates across the country are trying to prepare for life after agency fee is gone. No one is very hopeful the union will prevail in court. Higgins told the delegates that the chances of CTA losing the case “look pretty good.” CTA seems to agree.

Finally, Higgins talked about the union’s position after the November elections.

One of the things that has always given me pause is that we need to fight those at the statehouse with everything we have. Right now, that means fighting many, many Republicans who do not see things our way.

But I’ve always been distressed that, when I look out here at the audience today, I know that this audience – you – are made up of Republicans, Democrats, and independents. And it is real easy to say I’m a Democrat. But I know many, many members and delegates who won’t say that they’re Republican because they are afraid of the backlash that the members have when they might own up to that.

We can no longer do that.

If you remember back in 2010, when John Kasich was elected, over 40 percent of our members voted for John Kasich. Now the makeup of our membership is about 30 percent, 30 percent, 30 percent. So it is clear that it was not just Republicans who elected John Kasich. There were many other people, and we have to work together.

We have to quit saying Democrat, Republican. It’s we are advocates for pro-public education, and that’s what we’re going to work for. We have got to stop labeling people.

There’s a lot to chew on in there, so I’ll leave it with just one question for you: Is Higgins’ point of view the majority opinion among NEA’s state affiliate officers and executive staff, or an outlier?

Published with permission