Bonnie J. Smothers, RAFO Grievance Chair 
NEA-RA Report, 2018

Current events certainly brought an even greater sense of urgency to the usual intensity of a RA annual. Before the event, the nation experienced a draconian immigration policy, the Janus v. AFSCME ruling, and, as the conference drew ever nearer, the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy. While Kennedy did vote for Janus, he has been unpredictable during his tenure. For instance, he had been steadfast in defense of Roe v. Wade. With his departure, the choice of selecting a replacement Supreme Court Judge may fall into the hands of Trump and the GOP, both unfriendly to unions and public education. To increase the unease over the Janus v. ASCME decision, we delegates learned from our info packets that some NEA member had received e-mails from “MyPayMySay” prompting them to drop their memberships. Now, MyPayMySay is partially funded by the Mackinac Center, which is funded by Betsy DeVos and her family. We were also “reminded that there might be other anti-NEA people in the city—always know whom you are talking to.” Without doubt, much reason and stealth would be needed to address pressing issues, in spite of the concern and anxiety setting the stage from the beginning. For me, it wasn’t a time to take candid photographs. Some of my shots were of the huge monitor in the Assembly Hall! 

The NEA RA (National Education Association Annual Meeting and Representative Assembly) began on June 30 and ended on July 6. The 2018 annual took place in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and was launched with numerous business meeting, involving various factions, in preparation for the gathering of all delegates, or the Representative Assembly (RA) during the final four days of the annual meeting. The first such business event for me was the IEA (Illinois Education Association) caucus meeting that featured the IEA General Counsel, Mitchell Roth, briefing us on the Janus decision and its current and possible impact on public education unions. At that very first meeting, too, the IEA caucus decided to adjourn earlier than planned to join The Families Belong Together rally in front of the Convention Center, a visible rebuke to that part of Donald Trump’s immigration policy that initiated the separation of children from their parents.

Of course, there were some other lighter moments before the RA convened. At a Higher Education cocktail party, I learned that our own Region 67 member Loretta Ragsdell had garnered the first Higher Education Teacher of the Year Award, which will now be made annually by the NEA. Ragsdell would later make an acceptance speech at the RA. At the Human and Civil Rights Awards event, the various honors included one for Colin Kaepernick’s Know Your Rights Camp (President’s Award) and another to Michelle Obama (Mary Hatwood Futrell Award) for working toward “progress for women and girls in the United States and across the globe” mainly through education. You can read the brief biographies of all the winners on the Website, NEA Human and Civil Right Awards Program.

Such events prior to the actual RA can lead to an ebb in positive energy. I suppose that could be a fear of most huge national gathering. (This RA was attended by over 6,000 delegates.) By the first day of the RA, I must admit that I was a bit anxious and overly curious about how events would unfold; but the opening was reassuring. President Lily Eskelsen Garcia introduced a native Minnesota Indian tribe to provide the opening prayer. What an excellent choice! The tribe’s leader came forth and was positively reassuring, bringing the delegates to a peaceful place with her song and words. Soon afterwards, we received a surprise guest—David Hogg. The young man took the stage and delivered an extemporaneous speech that spoke volumes about his courage, intellect, political savvy, and poise. When thanked profusely for his visit, his response to the delegates was “just vote.” The two subsequent speakers gave the delegates little time to recover because both were extremely charismatic and dedicated to the value of strong unions. Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teacher (AFT) spoke first and then came Lee Saunders of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Their voices were classic defiance and solidarity—the stuff of unions since Dos Passos. Garcia then spoke and noted so poignantly that times such as these can bring forth dark and dangerous thoughts and actions. Finally, the one-time folk singer Lily took out her guitar and sang, of all things, “All You Need Is Love.” Well, it was an ice-breaker. Now, we could calmly take care of business.

There were 129 New Business Items (NBIs) and we worked through all of them. As usual, some NBIs are created after delegates arrive at the annual. Hence, some seem rougher and less well thought out than others. As customary, repetitive ones are “bundled” and the ones requiring more legal study referred to the proper NEA unit. At this RA, by the second and third day, high passion returned and, I think, was fuel to help us get through all of the NBIs. I do not approve of amending a NBI for subjective reasons, but one has to put up with much of that at a RA. For example, the ire against Trump was palpable at this RA. So, suppose that a NBI was proffered in response to a possible Trump appointment to the Supreme Court to fill the vacancy created by Anthony Kennedy’s retirement. The original version would contain the following: “NEA will defend U.S. democracy against Donald Trump using the U.S. Supreme Court to shut down the Mueller investigation . . .” Then, it would be met on the floor with much debate, subsequent introduction of amendments, and non-acceptance of these amendments by the NBI maker. After all the negotiation the final version of such a NBI might contain the following language: “NEA will support a strategy of postponing confirmation of a Supreme Court Justice until after the mid-term election . . . .” The removal of the word “Trump” etc. would be the crucial stumbling block to passing such a NBI on the substance of the item.

It was, indeed, a very eventful and important RA. I am sure that the coming months will bring more rallies and protests as we wear RedforEd, standing truth to power, following the lead of many schools across the U.S. that have begun the fight to protect and extend democracy, and making America great again!