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Interesting Find in the Collection: When the National Education Association was not a Union

From its founding in 1857 until the late 1960s, the National Education Association represented teachers as members but also represented school administrators. Bridging both sides of the labor-management divide as they did, the Association rejected the label of 'union' preferring to call itself a professional association. In tandem with rejecting the label, it rejected the tactics of unionism, as well. Advocating for respect by 'professionalizing the profession' were favored over strikes, collective bargaining, and adversarial relationships with administrators. Complicating this relationship was the role of the school administrators, who had authority over the members as employees while also playing an outsized role in directing the agenda of the NEA itself. In the early 1970s, the Association changed its role, giving teachers a greater voice in the organization and embracing its modern role as a union.

This interesting find in the collection provides an insight into why those teachers felt they needed a more powerful voice. It is from the 1912 Journal of the Proceedings and Addresses, the minutes of their annual meeting. The members are voting to select a new president. One of the members proposes a candidate to replace a nominee currently on the ballot. The candidate she proposes is Grace Strachan, a champion at the time for equal pay for teachers regardless of gender.

The chair holds an open floor vote for the replacement and the vote fails. The person who proposed the replacement nominee then objects to the vote, on the grounds that it "is not fair to stand up and be counted when their superior officers do not want them to be counted." Essentially, their bosses, the school administrators, would see how they voted and could censure them for it. At the time, many teachers served at will, so upsetting their supervisors was a poor career move. The proposed solution is to hold a secret ballot. The chair recognizes the proposal and an open floor vote is held to see if a secret ballot should be held. Of course, the proposal for a secret ballot fails for the same reason the original vote failed-administrators would know if a teacher they supervised had voted for the secret ballot. The entire episode can be read in the document found at the bottom of this blog.

To read more about this subject or anything else about the history of the National Education Association, contact the NEA Archivist at smallen@gwu.edu or visit the Special Collections Research Center on the 7th floor of Gelman Library.

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