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N.E.A. To Continue Merger Talks With A.F.T.

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New Orleans

Members of the National Education Association voted at their annual meeting here last week to explore for another year the option of merging with the union's rival, the American Federation of Teachers.

Debate on the merger was short and polite; then a majority of the delegates approved an extension of their leaders' periodic meetings with A.F.T. officials.

Several N.E.A. sources said last week that they consider the issue of merger as a "foregone conclusion''--a matter of working through logistical details and winning over the handful of state and local affiliates that have openly questioned the move toward national unification.

But others attending the meeting of nearly 10,000 delegates to the union's Representative Assembly said they see a storm cloud on the horizon.

They predicted that next year--when the N.E.A.'s leaders are expected to present the membership with a merger package--widespread opposition will surface.

"Much of the sentiment that's been expressed here is toward continued talks--not necessarily merger,'' said Sybil F. Connally, one of two classroom teachers on the seven-member panel investigating a merger. The group has met with an A.F.T. panel half a dozen times over the past year, primarily to compare the structures of the two organizations.

"There are still too many unresolved issues'' for members to take a stand yet, Ms. Connally added.

Last year, when the N.E.A. voted to open the talks, debates were heated, and the opposition was concentrated in the New York State and New Jersey delegations. (See Education Week, July 14, 1993.)

This year, however, Gregory S. Nash, the president of the N.E.A.-New York, spoke out in favor of seizing "the opportunity to share information with the A.F.T.''

Protecting Union's Culture

But in an interview later he cautioned that the state's delegates are still worried about whether the leadership will protect such cherished union policies as secret-ballot elections and guarantees of minority representation throughout the 2.2 million-member N.E.A.

"There are many, many others who have concerns,'' Mr. Nash added, despite the fact that only a few voting blocs--most notably Illinois, Missouri, and New Jersey--pushed this year to cease talks.

Regardless of whether the opposition will organize itself next year, merger supporters are gaining strength in a number of state affiliates that already work closely with their counterparts in the A.F.T., which has about 850,000 members nationwide.

Those states include California, Florida, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island.

Doug Tuthill, the president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers' Association in Pinellas County, Fla., said the prospective merger "has a lot of momentum now. If [union leaders] bring back a good package, it's a done deal.''

Although union leaders indicated last year that they probably would let support build locally before putting together a national structure, Keith Geiger, the N.E.A. president, said in an interview last week that the union is likely to propose a top-down agreement that would minimize disagreements over collective bargaining in the states that resist unification.

Under its resolution last year, the union voted to initiate a moratorium on any state or local unification talks, as well as a ban on representational challenges.

"One of the reasons for a moratorium on state merger talks is that we're concerned about having 50 different kinds of agreements happen,'' said Richard Collins, the president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, which has for years cooperated on professional and legislative activities with the state's A.F.T. affiliate.

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