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N.E.A. Reopens Debate in Union Over Merger With A.F.T.

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The National Education Association has moved to reopen a debate among its members on the possibility of a merger with the American Federation of Teachers.

At its meeting earlier this month, the N.E.A.'s board of directors voted to ask the union's representative assembly this summer to reconsider a 1976 policy that bars members from affiliating with the A.F.L.-C.I.O., to which the A.F.T. belongs.

At the same time, the board recommended that local and state affiliates be prohibited from exploring mergers if the N.E.A. and the A.F.T. decide to explore the issue at the national level.

The policy barring involvement with organized labor, which an N.E.A. committee studied for a year before making recommendations to the board this month, has been an obstacle to a national merger. (See Education Week, May 13, 1992.)

Some affiliates have found ways around the rule--by cooperating on legislative issues or holding joint conferences, for example. Several have expressed interest in uniting the organizations nationally or giving affiliates the flexibility to join the A.F.L.-C.I.O.

"It's really become more significant in the last three or four years because of what's happening at some of our locals and in some of our states,'' explained the N.E.A. president, Keith B. Geiger, who chaired the advisory committee.

"What we have in this new-business item is the opportunity to sit down with the A.F.T. and the A.F.L.-C.I.O.,'' Mr. Geiger said, "to see if we can do some creative bargaining.''

Jamie Horwitz, a spokesman for the A.F.T., said last week that the union was "happy that [the N.E.A.] is going to resolve this issue at their convention, one way or another.''

"We've said all along that we're open to the idea of merger,'' Mr. Horwitz said.

'Crazy Quilt'

In Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Rhode Island, where N.E.A. state affiliates have raised the idea of uniting with their A.F.T. counterparts, there is widespread agreement on the need for a national discussion of the issue.

"It makes a good deal of sense to look at it from a national perspective, instead of having this crazy quilt of relationships being developed across the country,'' said Richard Collins, the president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council.

For three years, WEAC has considered merging with its A.F.T. counterpart, the Wisconsin Federation of Teachers. But, Mr. Collins said, his group has "held off on merger talks until we can see whether N.E.A.'s policies will change.''

The Minnesota Education Association, which in a goodwill gesture to the A.F.T. set a one-year moratorium on bargaining elections last September, has a similar "wait and see'' attitude, said Judy Schaubach, its vice president.

"We support moving forward at the national level,'' she said.

Already, the state has seen the merger of about 1,500 teachers in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school district, a Minneapolis suburb.

Harvey Press, the president of the Rhode Island Education Association, acknowledged that some N.E.A. members may oppose exploring a closer relationship with the A.F.T. and the broader labor movement. But he said he thinks the union's delegates "will allow us to investigate further.''

The 8,500-member representative assembly is expected to vote on the proposal in July.

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