‘Where Hope Goes to Die’: What It’s Like to Work for a Teachers Union — as Detailed by 13 Disgruntled Employees

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Mike Antonucci’s Union Report appears Wednesdays; see the full archive

Working for a teachers union can be rewarding in many ways. The perks are exceptional, and those who believe in the union’s causes find themselves paid well for doing good.

But the two major teachers unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, have struggled with their role as employer. They are self-proclaimed defenders of working people, yet when faced with labor problems common to most employers, they often resort to tactics reminiscent of the most hidebound corporations.

Glassdoor.com is a website that allows employees and former employees to anonymously describe and rate the companies and organizations for which they have worked. An examination of the comments from current and former teachers union employees, admittedly a fraction of all union employees, shows that most greatly appreciate the salary and benefits but recognize that there’s a price.

These comments, not all entirely negative, were posted during the past three years on Glassdoor. We don’t the know the specific circumstances that led to these postings, but the themes are similar and reflect what I have heard from union staffers.

Former AFT employee:

“Offer their employees a living wage and amazing benefits. Seem to genuinely care about their staff well-being, albeit only when convenient for them.”

“No accountability, no work-life balance, no real opportunity to grow in a position. There is a dwindling office culture and outlooks are bleak. People snipe one another [sic] if it means they get ahead even slightly. Not dealing with the fast-approaching reality that unions will be crushed by the far-right political contingency and upcoming legal battles.”

Advice: “Audit spending, especially in the president’s office.”

Former AFT organizer:

“The culture of the AFT is so broken that the National Reps and even their directors (your supervisors) joke around about never landing in a city without locating the first liquor store.”

Advice: “There needs to be a complete overhaul of leadership. Many of the middle and upper middle management are cruel alcoholics who couldn’t organize their way out of a bucket.”

Current AFT organizer:

“Favoritism is rampant. Office politics are sometimes terrible.”

“If you have to work with a local or state affiliate in addition to your project, good luck — sometimes the resulting bureaucracy is a nightmare. You will see campaigns run into the ground and members thrown under the bus.”

“Some AFT National Representatives are awful to work for. They mistreat their staff and fire them for petty reasons, or are just generally incompetent.”

Former AFT employee:

“The best work is in the field, helping members and workers gain power on the job and in the community.”

“The headquarters has an often toxic culture of petty jealousies and long-simmering grievances.”

Former NEA employee:

“An excellent opportunity here to do some exciting work for a meaningful mission. I worked with some really good people there, as well. Exceptional benefits and pay that is hard to find in the progressive/non profit space.”

“Management was severely lacking. There is a ridiculous pecking order there, as other reviewers have mentioned. Some managers liked to pull rank to get what they wanted, even if their expectations were unreasonable or unrealistically high. Other managers were not good at interpersonal relationships and generally knowing how to talk to people respectfully, especially their subordinates.”

“Every single one of the managers need mandatory management training (and the ability to talk to people like they are adults and not children that they control).”

Current California Teachers Association employee:

“Poor leadership with micromanagement style, stressful and negative environment, several disgruntled employees who are mentally checked out counting down to retirement.”

Current Colorado Education Association employee:

“Decent benefits and free parking downtown. Terrible management. They don’t want to hear anything that goes against what they are doing.”

Former Maryland State Education Association employee:

“Good pay & benefits, in nice location (historic Annapolis, adjacent to waterfront and restaurants); decent mission and purpose.”

“Internal climate undermines employee morale (first day on the job, I was told ‘be careful about speaking with those on the fifth floor’ — where elected leaders have their offices); job security drives many people to just do minimum and play it safe, spending hours online or gossiping.”

Current Maryland State Education Association employee:

“Solid employment, with most members paying mandatory dues, so no layoffs. Good salary and benefits. Management is not very smart, so only need ego appeased to keep happy.”

“Have worked at state affiliated offices for over ten years and witnessed steady decline in morale, influence and concern for members. State [executive director] is so bad, lobbying staff try to keep him from interacting with legislators. Local [executive director] is so bad, staff leave for other local offices. If hardworking, burned-out members working in schools really knew about wasted time spent gossiping or browsing web — check out game playing history on server — or professional conference in Vegas, they would not be happy.”

Former Maryland State Education Association employee:

“Adversarial relationship of management towards staff is intentional. Control is the main objective.”

Former Massachusetts Teachers Association coordinator:

“Where hope goes to die. Incredibly generous pay and benefits with the complete absence of accountability. If you’re only in it for yourself, this is the place for you.”

“A bricolage of otherwise unemployable misfits consumed with reacting to the mercurial behavior of self-aggrandized elected leaders who are not fit to shape the behaviors of house pets, let alone students.”

Former Michigan Education Association bargaining specialist:

“Excellent pay and benefits. More vacation time than just about any place else you can think of. Fabulous, intelligent, well-trained colleagues who are very supportive. Many training opportunities to improve skills. Ability to team with colleagues to work on projects. Flexibility in hours and ability to work from home at times. Perfect for independent, self-starters. Strong national organization with accompanying training and learning opportunities.”

“Inevitably, management always forgets where it came from. The organization is strong on promoting from within, but somehow there is a magic filter than keeps management employees from applying what they preach to their own personnel. Very vindictive personnel executives. Seems to be a thrill in making staff jump through unnecessary hoops, especially with regard to training. Terrible work/life balance as the hours are excessive and staff are stretched to the limit. Very stressful work, but also challenging and rewarding at times.”

Advice: “Conduct exit interviews so you don’t have to read this stuff on the internet.”

Current North Carolina Association of Educators employee:

“Management treats employees with total disrespect. The only thing management is good for is taking credit for the work others do. And copy and paste emails. All while making 6 figures!”

It’s likely that working conditions at teachers unions are not as bad as they are depicted here, nor as good as the unions would like you to think. One would hope, however, that these reviews would cause unions to clean up their own messes before giving others housecleaning tips.

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