‘Dig Deeper’: NEA-Retired Members Vow to Keep Fighting

NEA-Retired President Sarah Borgman, along with past presidents Barbara Matteson, Tom Curran, and Jim Sproul cut the first slice of the cake commemorating the organization’s 35th anniversary. Photo: Calvin Knight

Even as the U.S. Supreme Court last Wednesday handed down a long-awaited decision in Janus v. AFSCME—a case intended to silence the voice of the American Labor Movement by making it unconstitutional for unions to collect what are known as fair share dues—members of NEA-Retired gathered in St. Paul, Minnesota, to address new business, celebrate the organization’s 35th Anniversary, and recommit themselves to standing up for public school educators and students nationwide.

“During a storm, the roots of a tree an actually dig deeper,” said NEA-Retired President Sarah Borgman during a rousing keynote that brought the 441 delegates attending the organization’s two-day Annual Meeting to their feet.

“We are going to let our roots and our heritage help us. We are going to be stronger when we come out of this battle,” Borgman told attendees.

Standing 318,000 members strong, NEA-Retired has weathered tough times before. After the 2010 midterm elections swept into national office a cadre of anti-union, anti-working family lawmakers who began immediately to dismantle collective bargaining and strip public employees of their voices, NEA-Retired not only maintained steady membership, but saw the number of new members nudge slightly upward.

“What we do with Janus is going to be the test,” Borgman said.

Something to Celebrate

NEA-Retired was created on July 3, 1983, by 49 educators. Since then, the organization has led the way on Social Security, Medicare and pension protection, and worked to loosen the shackles of the Government Pension Offset and the Windfall Elimination Provision, which together deprive nearly 9 million public service workers of Social Security benefits they have earned.

Photo: Calvin Knight

Three past presidents of NEA-Retired—immediate past president Tom Curran, Barbara Matteson, and Jim Sproul—attended Wednesday’s birthday cake celebration to mark the organization’s founding.

NEA’s leadership, President Lily Eskelsen García, Vice President Becky Pringle, Secretary-Treasurer Princess Moss, and Executive Director John Stocks were also on hand to congratulate NEA-Retired members for their hard work.

“I look around this room and all I can see is my own history, reflected in your faces,” said Eskelsen García, who urged the group to “show up on Election Day,” adding, “And that’s the least we’re going to do,” to begin to stem the tide of damage created by right wing conservatives.

“The Koch brothers need to stop us because of what we believe in. We believe every single, blessed child should have the right to succeed; that no one should face discrimination; that no one should face injustice,” Eskelsen García said.

Calling retired members the “beating heart” of NEA, Pringle told the gathering that they’re “not done yet.” Not done “being active and determined and bold and courageous and feisty and fierce . . . You are going to be the example to the student members of what it looks like to be a fighter.  They knock us down and we get up and we show them what it means to fight back.”

Rounding out the remarks from the trio, Moss told the retired educators “We stand on the shoulders of you—of the work and the pace you set for us.  You have always provided NEA with the soul of the work that we must do . . . We will rise to meet whatever challenges come our way, and we will rise and move forward because of leaders just like you.”

On a day that started with a decision that many are calling labor’s greatest setback, NEA-Retired members—dedicated men and women whose wisdom was built from successes and failures big and small—serve as steady examples of what it means to move forward, no matter what.

Susie Chow is a member of United Teachers Los Angeles-Retired, and a first-time attendee at the NEA-Retired Annual Meeting. At the close of Wednesday’s session when she was asked to share her impressions of the day, Chow expressed sentiments that were likely felt throughout the room.

“This gives me a reason not to be disheartened,” she said.  “When I go back, that’s what I will carry with me.  I’m going to go back and think about all the things that will keep my spirits up.”