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Dispute Shines Spotlight on Teachers' Unions' Role as Employer

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As the recent contract dispute at the American Federation of Teachers made clear, the A.F.T. and the National Education Association are not just labor unions: They are employers faced with many of the same issues as the school districts with which their members negotiate.

Both of the national teachers' organizations and their state and local affiliates bargain with several other labor unions that represent their employees.

These groups range from independent, or "in house," unions--such as the American Federation of Teachers Staff Union, which last month threatened to strike over proposals by the A.F.T. to change seniority provisions-to locals of the Communications Workers of America, the Newspaper Guild, and the United Auto Workers.

Virtually all labor unions have unionized work-forces, said Hank AlbareIii, the executive director of the National Education Association Staff Organization, the union that represents N.E.A. staff members in Washington and some regional offices.

"The staffs of all the unions are so sensitive and aware of the tremendous benefits you get through organizing," Mr. Albarelli said, "that it would defy logic for them not to organize themselves."

Tough Negotiations

While the issues discussed in contract negotiations with teachers' unions are generally routine--seniority provisions, vacation and sick-leave policies, pensions and health benefits, and grievance procedures, for example--union managers say their staff unions drive hard bargains.

"We are a union that has unionized employees, and many, many employees have extensive experience in the collective-bargaining process," said Patricia A. Orange, the N.E.A.'S director of human resources. "So, when we sit down to negotiate, we are dealing with real professionals on both sides of the table. It can be very difficult."

The members of the A.F.T.S.U., for example, had voted to strike if their union could not fend off management's proposals to change seniority provisions. (See box, this page.)

The N.E.A.'S official management philosophy includes a statement saying that the N.E.A. "Believes in unionism"--both within and outside the organization-and "will treat employee unions with fairness, firmness and consistency," Ms. Orrange noted.

At the N.E.A, the union's management staff, rather than elected officers, typically conduct negotiations. However, the elected officials can choose to have an executive- committee member participate in the talks.

President Albert Shanker led the recent negotiations at the A.F.w. (See Education Week, Jan. 8, 1992.)

The N.E.A. bargains with three separate unions:

  • The N.E.A.S.O., which represents 340 nonmanagerial employees of the N.E.A. The members are lobbyists, public-relations specialists, secretaries, bookkeepers, broadcasting technicians, and the like.
  • The Association of Field Service Employees, which bargains for 53 union organizers and political specialists who travel on assignment throughout the country.
  • A unit of the International Union of Operating Engineers, which represents the maintenance employees at the N.E.A.'S Office building in Washington.

The A.F.T. bargains with two units of the A.F.T.S.U., which represents the national headquarters staff and field representatives.

New Approach to Grievances

'We're a full-service union," Mr. Albarelli said. 'We enforce the contract the same as any other local unions."

The fact that the N.E.A. itself is a labor union, he added, "makes them more sensitive to the union issues. It's viewed as a plus."

Members of the N.E.A.S.O., who earn between $35,000 and $75,000 annually, pay 1 percent of their salary in dues to the union.

Grievances over promotions and performance evaluations are some of the more common issues that divide the N.E.A. and its staff union, according to the executive director.

In contract negotiations last year, Ms. Orrange said, both sides agreed to try a more "collaborative" approach to problem-solving.

"We're trying to deal with these issues in a less adversarial mode in an attempt to resolve some of them without going straight through grievances to arbitration," she said.

One recent grievance was filed by the A.F.S.E. over the transfers of several employees in the government relations division. An arbitrator ruled that, while the association had the right to make the transfers, it had not followed contractual procedures in doing so and that it must go through the process again.

National Umbrella Group

The unions representing N.E.A. staff members and field employees are affiliated with the National Staff Organization--a loosely knit federation of unions that represent employees who work for N.E.A. affiliates.

Most of the N.E.A.-related unions began in the late 1960's and early 1970's, at the same time that teachers themselves were gaining collective-bargaining rights.

The National Staff Organization now has approximately 4,500 members, according to John Warms, its president and the director of legal service programs for the New Jersey Education Association.

This month, 400 representatives from N.E.A. staff unions across the country will gather in Sarasota, Fla., for the N.S.O.'s annual Winter Advocacy Retreat-also referred to as the "WAR College."

In addition to providing seminars on collective bargaining, grievance procedures, and the like, the N.S.O. has four "coordinated bargaining councils" that assist affiliates in establishing common bargaining proposals, Mr. Warms said.

"It makes it easier to establish bargaining if things become more acceptable within various states," he explained.

There is no umbrella organization that serves the unions that negotiate with the A.F.T.

Some of the A.F.T.'s state and local affiliates bargain with unions that are locals of international unions, such as the United Auto Workers or the Communications Workers of America, said Rick Kuplinski, a vice president of the American Federation of Teachers Staff Union.

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