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Shanker Thanks Delegates for Support Through 'a Very Tough Year'

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Anaheim, Calif.--On his 20th anniversary as president of the American Federation of Teachers, Albert Shanker opened the union's convention here on a bittersweet note, thanking the hushed delegates for their support during his recent battle with cancer.

Mr. Shanker, who was unanimously elected to another two-year term in office at the meeting last month, is undergoing a final round of treatment for bladder cancer.

Because of his health, some union insiders had privately questioned the stability of the union's leadership.

Mr. Shanker, a pioneer in winning collective-bargaining rights for teachers and one of the country's most forceful champions of public education, admitted having had second thoughts about seeking re-election.

"It's been a very tough year,'' he said, his voice breaking.

But doctors have given him "a very good prognosis'' for recovery, Mr. Shanker, who is 65, assured the crowd.

The 4,000 delegates greeted the news with a series of standing ovations.

Vice President Gore and U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley also praised the union president in their speeches here.

Known for his provocative--and lengthy--speeches, Mr. Shanker this year delivered his traditional "state of the union'' address despite speculation that his illness would keep him from the lectern.

He reported that the union had grown by about 56,000 members, to 852,000, since the last biannual meeting.

Mr. Shanker also said the leadership was proceeding with caution on a possible merger with the 2.2 million-member National Education Association. (See Education Week, July 13, 1994.)

"Don't get the idea that it has happened, that it must happen, or that it will happen,'' he said, pointing to the unions' longstanding differences.

The A.F.T.'s affiliation with the A.F.L.-C.I.O. could be a major sticking point, as could its voting procedures and unlimited terms of office.

But the makeup and prevailing interests of the organizations are also at odds, Mr. Shanker added.

Most A.F.T. affiliates are in urban areas, while the N.E.A. tends to dominate rural and suburban districts. Moreover, the A.F.T. represents other state and municipal employees and health-care workers, while the N.E.A. "feels strongly about being only for educators,'' he said.

Some A.F.T. leaders have expressed concern that a combined union would be viewed as a "monster'' of special interests that would make it vulnerable to attack from political foes.

Both unions have been at war with private companies seeking to manage public schools, but it was clear here that the A.F.T.'s campaign is in full swing.

The Baltimore and Hartford, Conn., delegations made a strong showing, mustering support for their efforts to oppose involvement in their districts by Education Alternatives Inc.

Several union members pointedly criticized the company's chief executive officer, John Golle. And another delegate called E.A.I.'s practices "the greatest shell game in education.''

The Minneapolis-based company oversees all or part of the operations of 12 public schools in Baltimore, and last week entered into negotiations with the Hartford schools.

Delegates passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on contracts with E.A.I. until its arrangement in Baltimore has been independently evaluated.

"What is out there now is really a disaster,'' Mr. Shanker said of E.A.I. and its main competitor, the Edison Project. (See related stories, pages 1 and 18.)

The A.F.T. urgently needs to turn out a new generation of leaders for its front lines, union members say.

A task-force report on leadership development and membership released here said young members feel disconnected from the union and believe it is not changing quickly enough to respond to a new environment.

The unions's longtime leaders have provided stability and seen the union through years of growth, the report says.

"We need to recognize, however, that this maturing leadership is nearing retirement in increasing numbers,'' it says. "The need to prepare a whole new cadre of leaders is more important than ever.''

John Cole, the president of the Texas Federation of Teachers and a member of the task force, said new recruits want more professional support from the union, more contact with their affiliates, and a greater voice in how their workplaces should be run.

The report is intended to encourage more rank-and-file members to seek office and make the A.F.T. more attuned to members' needs.

"We have to show that the A.F.T. is listening,'' said George Springer, the president of the Connecticut State Federation of Teachers. "The union does not simply belong to the leadership.''

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