The National Education Association (NEA), the largest union in the US with roughly 3 million members, concluded its annual Representative Assembly (RA) on July 3. The convention was characterized by a cover-up of the immense toll of the COVID-19 pandemic on educators, school staff, parents and children, with the pandemic reduced to an “exacerbation of inequities and racism.”
Remarkably, the union failed to host an “In Memorium” for those NEA members and school workers who died from COVID-19 over the past 16 months. The teachers unions have admitted that over 1,000 educators have perished from the virus so far, but refuse to publish precise numbers or the names of those lost. The traumatizing events of the last year were swept under the rug while newly installed President Betsy Pringle and other top officials provided platitudes about “resilience,” “creativity” and “love,” telling NEA members, “It’s what you do.”
In addition, the event in no way acknowledged teachers’ courageous and widespread protests, strikes and other struggles against being herded into unsafe classrooms throughout the past school year. This is explained by the fact that, as with the wave of teachers’ strikes that swept across the US in 2018-19, all resistance to school reopenings was mounted in the teeth of the national union’s opposition.
The organization and content of the NEA convention was a pointed message from the union to its members to forget about the past year and a half and get back to “business as usual.” Or, as featured speaker President Joe Biden callously told educators, “It’s time to roll up our sleeves and get back to work.” Since Biden’s inauguration, the reopening of schools—as demanded by Wall Street to increase the labor participation rate—has been his first priority. Now school workers are being told the pandemic is “over,” despite growing case numbers and the development of more infectious and lethal variants, and under conditions in which the vaccines have not even been approved for children under 12 years old.
Pringle’s cheery keynote address focused on “imaging possibilities.” She said, “This year has defined what it means to reckon with our past, advocate for better in our present, and expand the possibilities for our future.” However, there was no “reckoning” by the NEA staffers with the union’s abandonment of teachers. We are compelled, therefore, to supply a political assessment of these bitter experiences.
Last summer, the two national American teachers’ unions, the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), cynically used the COVID-19 crisis to insist that union-administration partnerships must be expanded to embed the union apparatus more firmly in districts and government.
The NEA issued a document in June 2020, “All Hands on Deck,” which followed the AFT’s “A Plan to Safely Reopen America’s Schools and Communities” and likewise specified the creation of expanded “labor-management collaboration committees at the school and district levels.” The unions made clear they would suppress teacher opposition to in-person learning as long as they were included in the decision-making—a promise they kept.
As the teachers unions crafted their blueprints for reopening schools amid rising daily death tolls, by early May there had already been at least 173 strikes across the US to oppose the lack of COVID-19 safety measures.
Educators began taking measures into their own hands. Hundreds of thousands joined independent Facebook groups to express their determination to fight. In July alone, the WSWS reported teacher protests in Jacksonville, Florida; Montgomery, Alabama; Chicago, Illinois; Salt Lake City, Utah; East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana; Scottsdale, Tempe, Gilbert, Glendale, Tucson and Yuma, Arizona; Atlanta, Georgia; Memphis, Tennessee; Fort Mill, South Carolina; Colorado Springs, Colorado and many more.
These demonstrations escalated in August with calls for a nationwide walkout. The SEP provided the leadership and perspective to take this movement forward, fighting for teachers to form Rank-and-File Safety Committees, break with the pro-capitalist Democratic Party and unify all workers along class lines, nationally and internationally.
For their part, the unions failed to lift a finger to safeguard teachers. They called not a single demonstration at the national or state level, leaving teachers isolated district-by-district. In line with the policies of the Trump administration and the Democratic Party, the unions worked to suppress walkouts, demonstrations, and petitions across every state, allowed outspoken teachers to be victimized, and prevented educators from uniting together against Wall Street’s demand for a return to work.
This crime cost the lives of uncounted hundreds of educators, allowed the pandemic to spread throughout communities, and devastated children tragically susceptible to COVID-19 and multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that by May 19 roughly 26.7 million children under 18 years old had been infected with COVID-19, with a huge percentage undoubtedly connected to school reopenings. In allowing this to take place, the moral and political decay of the union was on full display.
The profound stress suffered by the education community in the face of losing numerous colleagues and loved ones was compounded by districts demanding superhuman efforts to create virtual curricula out of the whole cloth, often requiring simultaneous in-person and virtual lessons. Teachers were left with next to no resources to handle unprecedented demands. They dealt with students suffering from serious mental health issues, handled insuperable technology problems and took care of their own families at the same time.
Across the US, teachers with health concerns and documented underlying conditions were threatened with termination when they sought accommodations. The vast bulk of these teachers report that they received no help from their union at all. Thousands of educators who have devoted their lives to a profession they love were forced to quit due to stress or safety concerns.
The NEA and AFT collectively have over 4.7 million members, covering the vast majority of towns and cities across the US. These immense bureaucracies had ample resources to raise the alarm at the start of the pandemic by educating and mobilizing parents, educators, students and workers nationally. Instead, they dutifully collaborated with both big business parties to reopen schools. While in 2018-19 the NEA and AFT made clear that they accept capitalist austerity and attacks on public education, in 2020-21 they demonstrated their willingness to sacrifice the health and lives of their membership, as well as students, parents and their broader communities.
In contrast, the Socialist Equality Party spent this past year fighting to mobilize teachers, school workers, and the working class to shut down schools and all nonessential production and save lives. Our March 14 statement, “Shut down the auto industry to halt the spread of the coronavirus!” sparked walkouts that compelled a national lockdown, saving countless lives. The formation of rank and file safety committees among autoworkers was followed by the Educators Rank-and-File Safety Committee on August 15. Numerous other educators’ committees were formed at the regional, state…