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Union 101: Making the Most of Membership

For new educators who want to learn more about what you’ll get for your dues investment, here’s a primer on what NEA membership means.
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Published: February 7, 2017 Last Updated: August 31, 2020

It was early in Joseph Daily’s teaching career when he got married and started having kids. With more expenses, he was looking for ways to economize. He decided to drop his NEA membership to save on union dues, but he soon realized that not belonging came at a higher cost.

Even without dues expenses, money was still tight for the family of five, and when the PE teacher looked around his district in Yuma, Arizona, he realized that he was surrounded by educators just like him -- woefully underpaid and stretched in a “million different directions.” Daily rejoined NEA because he knew that without the union nothing was going to change.

“I rejoined the union because I believe that with the power of numbers behind us we could fight for better teacher pay, bring down our class sizes, get special training in various professional development areas, and much more,” Daily says. “I joined because I also cared about my colleagues. I hated seeing first year teachers leaving because they couldn’t make ends meet money-wise or they didn’t feel welcomed or supported. I joined to make a difference for those teachers so they will stay.”

Daily is now a vocal union advocate in his district with the following message – membership has many rewards.

For new educators or seasoned veterans who want to learn more about what you’ll get for your dues investment and how you can reap additional rewards through your involvement, here’s a primer on what National Education Association membership means. (First tip: Your membership means you belong to the local, state, and national Association, just as Joseph Daily is a member of the Yuma Education Association, Arizona Education Association, and NEA.)

Help on the Job

NEA offers teachers and education support professionals an array of workshops, webinars, and blended learning opportunities to support NEA members throughout their careers. These opportunities include access to over 175 micro-credentials—short, competency-based recognitions that have been created by educators for educators.

With the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, educators now have the opportunity to raise their voices to fight for what their students need. To help explain the opportunities ESSA presents and prepare members for implementation, NEA created a short ESSA explainer video and has posted resources and tools to help you and your colleagues get started. 

NEA also funds and organizes a variety of trainings for NEA members to help them in their profession. NEA’s Human and Civil Rights department understands that education advocacy and social justice advocacy go hand in hand. In its work to achieve equal opportunity and social justice for all students and school employees, the staff provides student-centered, research-based, and educator-driven training programs that prepare members to be powerful advocates for today’s students. Programs include Bullying and Sexual Harassment Training; Cultural Competence Training; Diversity Training; English Language Learner Culture & Equity Training; Safety, Bias, and LGBTQ Issues Training; and Social Justice Training.

Between trainings, members have round-the-clock access to professional learning communities. Free and open to all, NEA edCommunities is the place online where educators, school support professionals, and community members join forces to improve student success. A variety of groups address diverse education issues—from Common Core to school bullying, National Board certification to safe and healthy schools, ESP hot issues to flipped classrooms. You can also form a group of your own to advocate and collaborate on an issue that matters to your students and schools.

Legal Protection

NEA members have advocates called UniServ directors who can advise or represent members in employment-related matters. If a legal issue arises, you’ve got at least $1 million in liability insurance as a member of the Association. If a principal accuses you of being ineffective, the UniServ director has your back. While you’re in your first few years of teaching (usually three) you’re on probation and don’t have many of the protections you will get later on. But you do have rights. Association staff at your local office can tell you about them. Staffers can help you avoid situations that might force you to fight for your job.

Wages and Benefits Watchdogs

In states with collective bargaining, an experienced Association staff helps negotiating teams reach the bargaining table prepared to fight for pay increases and benefits. Staff do research and plan public relations campaigns to help the public understand the importance of adequately paying educators. Association staff train members to negotiate salaries and benefits. And the Association fights for members’ rights in Congress, the state legislature, and the school board.

Fighting for Better Schools for Our Students

Better working conditions mean a better learning environment for students. The national along with state and local associations advocate for smaller class sizes, less standardized testing, input into curriculum, and safe buildings, just to name a few. Together, educators and parents can join forces to ensure that students get a top-notch education from expert educators who are valued and supported.

Providing Educators with a Voice

A union’s strength and health rely upon the participation of every member. That’s why it’s important to understand and take action on the issues that affect you and your colleagues. To stay on top of education priorities, sign up for a daily digest of education news, or subscribe to NEA newsletters, delivered directly to your inbox.

Every organization depends on the collective power of members. And union involvement— adding your voice to a chorus of educator-advocates who want to make positive changes that affect the classroom and educator working conditions—is the best way to improve the teaching profession and help communities of educators grow stronger.

In Yuma, Joseph Daily says the local voice is getting louder and stronger because of the support it provides. “The best way to keep our teachers here is to support them, and we do that by having a strong and loud voice. The best way to have that voice is by growing the membership of the union.”

Even More Reasons to Join

You join for the professional benefits and the collective voice, but membership also brings other benefits. Through NEA Member Benefits, you can receive insurance discounts, reduced movie ticket prices, and coupons for stores like Target, Ann Taylor, and Best Buy. The NEA Foundation provides grants that help teachers get their projects off the ground. Educators who want a bully-free school can get posters and other tools through NEA’s Bully Free campaign at And NEA’s award-winning Read Across America program provides an array of tools that promote reading, including diverse books, posters, and reading event planning resources. Find everything at

Ready to begin? Contact your state affiliate to find out how to join today.

New to the Union? Here’s a Helpful Glossary of Terms

 as·so·ci·a·tion, un·ion, guild, broth·er·hood All the same thing. It's a group that works collectively to improve working conditions and wages.

bar·gain·ing u·nit The group made up of employees that negotiates with employers on things like salary, benefits and working conditions..

build·ing rep A staff member who serves as a liaison between the staff union members and the administration. In a building with a strong union (that is, a lot of vocal and active members like you), they can typically address issues not covered by a contract to improve working conditions.

col·lect·ive bar·gain·ing The negotiation of a contract—including wages, benefits, and working conditions—between employers and employees. Some states don't have collective bargaining. Even though there is still typically a grievance or due process system legally guaranteed.)

griev·ance A dispute between a union member and management over a workplace situation or alleged contract violation that is handled through a procedure outlined in the contract or a state law or regulation. The grievance system facilitates your right to due process.

or·gan·iz·ing Drawing on the power of members' unified strength (3.2 million and counting in the NEA!), this is the action by which members lobby for changes, seek improvements in their working conditions, or work for any other important step that members determine is a priority.

"right-to-work state" States where unions can't negotiate agreements that require all employees covered by a collective bargaining agreement to pay for the costs of union representation. Such agreements eliminate "free riders" who enjoy the benefits of an agreement without supporting or joining the union.

 Uni·Serv di·rec·tor That's the professional union staff member you can turn to when you have a professional problem.

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Great public schools for every student

The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.