By Ray Carter, OCPA Center for Independent Journalism
When thousands of Oklahoma teachers participated in union-led protests at the Capitol in 2018, some thought the event was a sign of increasing power for teacher unions.
Yet newly released figures show the Oklahoma Education Association, the state affiliate of the National Education Association, continued to bleed members even as it boosted its public profile.
Based on NEA Secretary-Treasurer/Independent Auditors 2019 Financial Reports, The 74, a news site covering education, reports Oklahoma and Kentucky were among the states where an NEA membership decline coincided with teacher strikes and walkouts.
The number of active NEA/OEA members in Oklahoma declined 1.7 percent to 16,384 in the 2017-2018 school year. Over a five-year period, the union’s Oklahoma membership has declined more than 16 percent.
In an email, the author of that report, Mike Antonucci, said the OEA “has lost members every year for the past 10” and that the union’s membership has fallen 44 percent since 1993-94.
Contrary to expectations, one official says it’s possible the teacher walkout played a role in the union’s continuing loss of members.
“If there is a generalization that can be made about educators, they’re typically not aggressive personalities,” said Jami Lund, a senior policy analyst at the Freedom Foundation. “They’re typically not political, even. Typically service-to-children is their central-driving motivator, and that doesn’t generally mesh with, ‘Hey, let’s go out and say rude things to our employers.’ And so I think unions do lose some folks when they get more aggressive.”
The Freedom Foundation is an organization that works to “make collective bargaining in government more transparent and accountable to the public, give government employees meaningful choices about whether to join and be represented by a union, and prohibit taxpayer’s money from being unwillingly used to subsidize government unions and influence the political system,” according to the group’s website.
While some union members may be excited by the activism typical of strikes and walkouts, Lund said those individuals “were already members anyway.”
“You don’t win more friends, because the people who are thrilled that you are out marching in the street, shaking your fist at your employer, already were members, are going to keep being members, were going to keep being members no matter what happened,” Lund said. “And the iffy folks who are happy to have a workplace advocate, but not so much on doing aggressive things, are more inclined to drop off.”
While some people may leave a union because they don’t like political activism, others may leave due to practical concerns. A reason given by many teachers for joining a union is to obtain liability insurance coverage that protects them from lawsuits. Teresa Turner, who taught school in Cherokee County for 26 years before retiring at the end of the 2017-2018 school year, said declining OEA membership is tied, in part, to educators learning that insurance can be obtained elsewhere for less money.
“I think that’s why so many now are leaving OEA,” Turner said. “They have a little sense. They can still get the coverage, but cheaper.”
When she first started her teaching career, Turner said she belonged to the OEA “because everybody said, ‘You need that. You need the insurance to protect yourself.”
“I think that’s the reason everyone joined,” Turner said.
Later, during a time of financial stress, Turner left the union because she needed the roughly $400 that membership cost her. In subsequent years, she found another group that offered “double the coverage at half the price.” And today she said it’s possible to buy an insurance policy from an agent that is often cheaper.
Lund said the cost of dues, and the perceived value (or lack of value) provided by unions, can also cause some teachers to leave.
“I know with teachers, there generally is a strong cultural pressure in buildings to be part of the clique, and the union folks capitalize on that,” Lund said. “The things that influence whether teachers see that as valuable or not generally are things like what the price point is.”
When union dues increase, it leads more teachers to drop out of the union, he said.
Another factor impacting membership numbers is the “sentiment of young teachers.” In many states, union members are charged flat-rate dues, meaning membership costs the same regardless of a teacher’s income. As a result, union dues can eat up a larger share of a new teacher’s paycheck than a veteran peer’s income.
Also, Lund noted unions tend to focus on the needs of longtime members, not new teachers.
That combination may lead to fewer new teachers joining a union as older teachers who were union members retire.
“I suspect you will find that younger teachers are just forgetting to fill out their paperwork more frequently,” Lund said.
Following teacher walkouts in the spring of 2018, OEA officials argued the union had become a true political power able to flip election results. But that narrative was undermined in part by the union’s own documents.
In the group’s 2018 election guide, the OEA identified 60 individuals on the November general-election ballot as members of the “education caucus,” people employed in the education field. But of those 60, less than half — just 25 — were identified as OEA members in the guide. And of the 25 OEA members appearing on the general election ballot for legislative office, just five won their races.
The newly released membership figures suggest the low share of “education caucus” members who identified as OEA members was not out of line with general trends among all teachers.
While practical concerns may cause some teachers to leave the union, Turner said the union’s liberal stances on issues like abortion can also play a role.
“There still are conservatives out here,” Turner said.
The OEA did not respond to a request for comment for this story
Note: Ray Carter is director of the Center for Independent Journalism at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA), where this report first appears.