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Teachers' Unions in Minnesota Pledge Unified Front, Amid 'Courtship' Talk

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St. Paul.--For the first time in their histories, the presidents of the rival Minnesota Education Association and Minnesota Federation of Teachers spoke at each other's state conventions this month.

While the symbolic switch of speakers stirred speculation in the state that the unions may be taking a step toward an ultimate merger, union officials say the major immediate result will be closer cooperation.

"I have a dream that someday these two teacher organizations will be merged into one new teachers' union," said Dick Mans, president of the 48-year-old mft, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. Such a merger, he said, would have powerful political clout.

Martha Lee Zins, president of the 124-year-old mea, a National Education Association affiliate, said the cordial relationship "could be described as a courtship." But she added: "Dick's dream is obstructed by philosophical differences between the organizations, which must be resolved before we can make substantive progress."

'United Image'

In their speeches, both union leaders stressed a determination to speak with one voice on issues including political goals, money for education, and teachers' salaries, but Mr. Mans went on to call for a single new union with a "positive, united image." Speaking to mea delegates at their state convention, he drew a picture of a combined union of more than 50,000 members, the largest in the 200,000-member state afl-cio

"With a single voice, with determination, we could pool our resources and eliminate duplication of services," he said. "We could generate more political clout than either organization can do singly. ... We could wield the kind of muscle that no legislator or governor could ignore. Think of the things we could do for ourselves, for our families, for our students, and for our communities."

Common Goals Envisioned

Ms. Zins, trading places with Mr. Mans, told mft convention delegates that both unions are conducting discussions and working together to use the political process to maintain a "strong, productive, and viable public-school system." And although Ms. Zins said she is not ready for a merger, she asserted that the two organizations could set their differences aside for the time being to pursue their common goals, and perhaps deal with those differences at a later date.

Top officials of the two unions have cooperated in the past and are now scheduling a series of meetings to plan joint political and legislative strategies. But the main obstacles to a merger, officials note, are the unions' different affiliations and their philosophies on certain issues.

The mft is affiliated with the Minnesota afl-cio, a labor federation. The mea--which styles itself as the state level of the nea--sees itself as a professional association as well as a union; officials say they are concerned that they would lose their identity in a labor federation and find that nonteachers were speaking for teachers.

Additional Differences

Other difference between the two Minnesota unions are the use of delegate-selection procedures for their conventions to ensure minority participation--the mea uses such goals, the mft does not--and the subjects of merit pay and competency testing--the mft is willing to negotiate on them, whereas the mea has strong reservations on both.

There is also a substantial difference in the sizes of the two unions, which leads mea officials to speculate that their organization's rival stands to gain the most by the merger. The mea counts 41,000 members. The mft counts 18,000, but it bargains for teachers in most of the large Minnesota school districts, primarily in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan region.

In addition, officials note that there is a striking contrast between the two groups' political spending levels. The mea, through its political-action committee and a political-education fund, has a $300,000 war chest. That is about 10 times the mft's.

In an interview, Mr. Mans brushed aside the fears of mea officials that the afl-cio could dictate teacher-union policies, saying that his organization is autonomous when it comes to educational issues. Moreover, he said that mergers between afl-cio affiliates and nea affiliates in New York, Florida, and Los Angeles provided for dual allegiance and were working well.

And he indicated that the differences between the two unions--including a sharp dispute about statewide bargaining for a master contract that is supported by the mea and opposed by the mft--could be resolved through discussions in five years or less.

Mergers Said Working

But in a separate interview, Ms. Zins termed the mergers in New York, Florida, and Los Angeles "experiments" that had failed, and said they had created new and bitter factionalism. "I do not believe in merger for the sake of merger," she said.

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