July 10, 2010

Convention dynamics

This is my second AFT convention. I observed the 2006 NEA representative assembly as a microphone volunteer, and I've participated in a number of other organizational meetings of various sorts over the years. With both the NEA and AFT, there's an internal meta-procedural discussion about the openness of the meeting itself, and that happened in today's business sessions with complaints ranging from inadequate discussion on an item (and specifically, a request for more discussion that did not point any fingers) to assertions that people were engaging in tactics to control debate (and alleging poor intent as well as procedural abuse). I've read and heard different allegations about business meetings of the NEA Representative Assembly, the Modern Language Association, the American Historical Association, etc., and maybe it's time for perspective on organizational politics.

First, most organizations have structured discussions. Sometimes they're structured intentionally, as when there are formal rules, either all written out or with a baseline set of rules (commonly Roberts) and organization-specific variations. Sometimes the structures are more cultural than formal, as with consensus in Quaker circles. But you can't have an unstructured discussion of organizational policy and direction, even if you figure out what it is after the fact. And sometimes people gripe about the specific structures, even if the nature of a particular structure is a matter of an arbitrary choice that you have to take rather than the One True System for running organizations.

Picky example: who gets to speak on the floor of the AFT and NEA, and how someone is recognized. In AFT, the presiding officer rotates recognition among a set of numbered microphones. Whoever is at the front of the line for the microphone next in line is recognized. In NEA, people who wish to speak go to a microphone, complete a slip that the microphone volunteer calls in to a set of staff on the dais, and the slips recorded at the dais are passed to the presiding officer, who calls on the next person eligible in the NEA's rules rotation (giving immediate preferences to points of information or order and afterwards alternating perspectives). If you have a large enough group of people, you can greatly influence speaking (i.e., "control the mics") in either organization.

All organizations have filters on the types of proposals that are considered seriously. Sometimes the filters are at the bare-minimum "if this doesn't require us to act illegally" sort, sometimes at the "we'll have a mechanism to educate the body on what this entails," and sometimes at the "we have an explicit filter mechanism" level. My friends in MLA report that it's fairly close to the minimal filter level. My experience is that NEA has the "education filter" mechanism, which comes generally through recommendations of the executive committee and each state affiliate and this year also operated through the estimated cost figures that the resolutions committee attached to each new business item (and almost anything with a price greater than $1000 lost, from what I heard). AFT uses committees that meet the first day of the convention as a formal filter mechanism. If you're not lucky or not part of a group with a well-executed mic tactic, your best chance for influencing resolutions is before floor action, in the NEA by joining the resolutions committee or by participating actively in a state caucus, in the AFT by participating actively in one of the convention committees.

All organizations rely on the parliamentary/procedural skills of the presiding officer to let most of the time focus on substantive discussion. When people lose on a substantive issue, sometimes they want to use procedural error as a trump card, and a good presiding officer persuades the vast majority of participants that they've had their say even if they didn't get their way. That doesn't hold if there truly are internal provocateurs who have no intention of losing gracefully, but if sane people are grumbling, there is some skill missing. Reg Weaver ran the NEA RA with a great deal of humor. I haven't seen Dennis Van Roekel in action on that front (I'm not an NEA delegate for my local for this biennium), and I've heard conflicting stories about his skill as a parliamentarian. I suspect there's a backstory behind Randi Weingarten's use of a professional parliamentarian this year, and I think she's exercised some good judgment in spots and made some choices I would not have in others.

There are three magic phrases I try to keep in the back of my head when I'm running a meeting: "If there are no objections," "Let me suggest what you can do within the rules," and "I'm terribly sorry I have to stop you/ask you to hold on for a second." The first is to accomplish something probably noncontroversial--my most common use is when someone suggests "a friendly amendment," which doesn't exist in Robert's Rules, and I have to say, "Well, there's nothing called a friendly amendment in this set of rules, but does anyone object to the amendment that X proposed?" The second phrase lets someone know that the specific mechanism they want to use is inappropriate but that there's a way for them to make a proposal if they take the chair's advice. The third is the hardest to use because it really does require interruption. I'm awful at interrupting even the most tangential comments, because many of our parents raised us with the standard that interruption is rude, and what harm can a few seconds of diversion do? It's an awful choice. When more than one microphone is live, the interruption of a speaker is not only very vivid, but if the speaker refuses to let the presiding officer explain the interruption, you get more time absorbed. There were several times I thought Randi should have interrupted a speaker, but that's an after-the-fact judgment, and I've also seen hard feelings at other meetings come from pretty firm interruptions that the membership clearly thought were too rough. It's a hard line to walk.

Or maybe the floor sergeants at arms need to have some yellow cards and red cards, and if you're issued one red or two yellows, you're suspended from floor participation for a day...

Update: In his Twitter stream, Mike Klonsky claimed that AFT was a "tightly-controlled convention" because not all resolutions were debated on the floor. Aaagh. This is precisely the type of misunderstanding that people have when they view their experience in one organization as setting the norm for other organizations. NEA lets delegates send any new business item to the floor with fifty signatures out of 10,000 delegates at the convention. AFT requires all resolutions be filed by a certain date several months before the meeting and then go through an assigned committee on the first day of the convention. Every delegate is assigned to a committee, and while I don't know how many delegates get their first choice of a committee, I have both times. The AFT's rules and the limited floor time means that not every resolution is heard on the floor. That doesn't mean that AFT is "tightly controlled" any more than NEA's rules require anarchy on the floor. If you persuade the majority of delegates at an AFT convention committee to recommend approval of a resolution and that the resolution should be a high priority, it comes to the floor.

When a resolution is not debated on the floor, it means you didn't persuade the people in the room to send it to the floor. That means you lost the parliamentary debate. In AFT, delegates don't have the right to debate every motion. Those are the rules currently operating in AFT. In NEA, you get to debate almost every motion. Just because you think the California delegation is hogging the floor doesn't mean you get to control debate, it means you didn't get yourself and others organized to file new business items before resolution sponsors from California. If you get yourself organized first, you get your new business items heard first. Those are the rules currently operating in NEA.

To those who don't like the AFT rules or don't like the NEA rules, all I can say is quit your bellyaching and persuade the majority of delegates that you're right. You want to demonstrate the susceptibility of NEA rules to silliness? Fine: get enough delegates together next year to sponsor 200 new business items filed on the first day. I bet that forces the organization to change the rules. You want to demonstrate the problems of limited debate in AFT? Fine: persuade your local or state delegation to submit so many fabulous resolutions in one area typically debated first that the convention committee that is the obvious place for all of the resolutions finishes later on the first day of the 2012 meeting than the start of the Progressive Caucus meeting that day. Incidentally, you're not going to persuade me to help you with either strategy; I'm not a believer in the One True Parliamentary Rules. I'm just pointing out that there are ways of making the point about the structure of the rules in a way that follows the rules and makes your fellow delegates see your point. Those who gripe about the putatively "tightly-controlled" AFT floor debates or the "anarchic" NEA just prefer the organizations they understand. Fine. But stop assuming that your experience is the One True Way.

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Posted in Union on July 10, 2010 1:52 AM | Submit