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N.E.A. Delegates Endorse Talks on Merger of Unions

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SAN FRANCISCO--After three years of renewed debate over merging with their union's chief rival, members of the National Education Association voted at their annual meeting here this month to take a step in that direction.

The decision to open merger talks with the American Federation of Teachers--and reconsider a 1976 policy barring N.E.A. members from affiliating with the A.F.L.-C.I.O., to which the A.F.T. belongs--brings the two mammoth labor unions closer to unification than ever before.

Acting on the recommendation of the N.E.A.'s board of directors, about 70 percent of the delegates to the Representative Assembly meeting here approved a measure banning mergers or representational challenges between state and local affiliates while national talks proceed.

Keith B. Geiger, the president of the 2.1 million-member N.E.A., said in an interview last week that merger discussions could begin as early as this fall, after the union convenes a 13-member committee to explore the issue.

The committee's recommendations will be debated and voted on at the union's 1994 meeting.

The leaders of both unions stressed, however, that there is not likely to be a wholesale attempt to merge the national organizations in the next several years.

Instead, Mr. Geiger predicted that the N.E.A. would recommend adopting a strategy allowing affiliates more flexibility to join the A.F.L.-C.I.O..

The merger "will probably move on a local and state level,'' Mr. Geiger said.

"There is optimism on both sides,'' added Donna Fowler, a spokeswoman for Albert Shanker, the president of the 820,000-member A.F.T. "But it's a huge step, and these things can take a while.''

The current movement toward merger began in 1990, after Mr. Geiger was elected president of the N.E.A. He and Mr. Shanker formed a cordial relationship that led to public discussion of merging the unions. (See Education Week, Aug. 1, 1990.)

The two organizations also began working more closely on matters of common concern, such as the 1992 Presidential election. And over the past few years, they have reorganized themselvesalong similar lines.

In the 1970's, merger was also a hot topic, but instead resulted in the N.E.A.'s policy against affiliation with the A.F.L.-C.I.O.

'The N.E.A. Will Disappear'

In several quarters of the N.E.A., there is still fierce resistance to merging with the A.F.T.

During floor debates preceding the vote on merger, leaders from New York State--where affiliates were merged unsuccessfully for four years--and from New Jersey made emotional appeals to the 9,000 delegates to reject the move toward merger.

"What will happen if this goes on a national level,'' said Connie Eno, the president of the N.E.A.-New York, "is the N.E.A. will disappear.''

Several other delegates also expressed a fear of being "absorbed'' by the A.F.T. and A.F.L.-C.I.O., which historically have been seen as more militant than the N.E.A., which was founded as a professional organization.

"There are real differences between us,'' conceded Ms. Fowler of the A.F.T. "We do come out of different backgrounds and different traditions.''

"Some states in the South still have trouble with the concept of organized labor,'' added Jeff Wright, the president of the Florida affiliate of the N.E.A., which has long favored a merger. "They have a hard time accepting that we are a labor union.''

Though several of those delegations were silent during the debate, some delegates predicted they would speak up when the merger committee reports to the Representative Assembly next year.

Although the leadership has pledged to protect the union's secret-ballot election procedure and guarantees that members of minority groups are represented throughout the organization, Ms. Eno and her colleagues in New Jersey also claim a merger would strip the N.E.A. of its democratic traditions.

Mr. Shanker has indicated a willingness to reconsider the A.F.T.'s roll-call voting policy and its policy of allowing officers to serve unlimited terms of office, according to Mr. Geiger. The N.E.A. limits the terms of its elected leaders.

Still, Mr. Geiger added, a serious obstacle to merging remains: regional antipathy between the unions.

States like New Jersey, New York, Illinois, and Louisiana, which formed the only visible bloc of opposition during the debate, "each have a different reason for not wanting to do this,'' the union president said.

State Cooperation

But a handful of state affiliates have been successful in cooperating closely with their A.F.T. counterparts.

For instance, the N.E.A.'s state affiliates in Florida, New Mexico, and Wisconsin--which have all signed no-raid agreements--often lobby with A.F.T. leaders in the statehouse and schedule joint meetings.

And in Minnesota, which moved at last year's Representative Assembly to reopen the debate on merger, two locals have formed the Dakota County United Educators in a Minneapolis suburb.

"It's amazing how quickly they've blended,'' remarked Sandra Peterson, the president of the Minnesota Federation of Teachers, who joined the N.E.A.'s state delegation for the meeting.

Informal merger discussions at the state level have been going on in Minnesota for about two years, though both affiliates balked at making a move until the N.E.A. announced its position on national unification.

"I think everyone has laid the groundwork very well,'' said Ms. Peterson, whose office, like most A.F.T. affiliates, represents teachers in urban areas of the state.

"By and large, a lot of our locals are just waiting'' for the N.E.A. to jump, she added.

Robert E. Astrup, the president of the Minnesota Education Association, said the delegates' vote "indicates a sea change'' among the union's ranks.

"A lot of people who fought the old fight have retired'' from teaching, he observed, and a new generation has surfaced without old grudges toward the federation.

In addition, Ms. Peterson pointed out, attitudes about the A.F.L-C.I.O. have changed, "because the face of the labor movement is changing--more service industries are involved.''

And, at a time when some say organized labor's national influence is dwindling, union leaders are realizing that "you only survive by being part of a large group focusing on the same kinds of things,'' she said.

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