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Unions Cling to Differences, Drop Merger Talks

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The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have abandoned plans for a merger after nearly two years of negotiations. In the end, both groups were unwilling to give up some of the policies and traditions that set them apart, sources said.

The negotiations broke off late last month.

But leaders of both unions said they have not ruled out the possibility of reopening the talks in the near future.

"We certainly don't think this will be our last effort," Albert Shanker, the longtime president of the A.F.T., said last week.

An N.E.A. official said, "Too much time, money, and effort has already been put into this for there to be no gain."

Labor experts and others have closely watched the recent moves by the nation's two major teachers' unions.

Many observers interpreted the groups' frequent talks as the most serious attempt yet at bringing together the mammoth organizations. The N.E.A. has 2.2 million members, and the A.F.T. has more than 850,000.

Union officials, however, said the devil was in the details.

Voting policies, terms of office, and other differences in structure stalled the discussions when the groups were unable to find common ground.

Some observers also said the unions were concerned about how local and state affiliates would divide their powers under a new national organization.

Traditionally, the N.E.A. has had a strong presence at the state level; the A.F.T.'s power has been concentrated in its local affiliates.

"Our leaders would have had to make some changes, but it got to a point where it would be a lot more than some little inconveniences," one A.F.T. member said.

Another added: "The very people who had to approve the merger would have had to destroy themselves."

New Attitude

In the 1970's, merger was a hot topic for the rival unions, but the those discussions resulted in the N.E.A.'s 1976 policy barring its members from joining the A.F.L.-C.I.O., the labor movement's umbrella organization to which the A.F.T. belongs.

The A.F.T. historically has been viewed as more militant than the N.E.A., which was founded as a professional organization.

Union leaders revived the talk of merger in 1990 after Keith Geiger was elected the president of the N.E.A. He and Mr. Shanker formed a cordial relationship that sparked more discussions.

In 1993, the N.E.A. voted to keep exploring the issue by forming a task force with the A.F.T.'s leadership. Last year, the unions said those talks would continue until they could work through some of their differences. (See Education Week, 07/13/94.)

Some union insiders said they were surprised that the discussions collapsed before the unions had a proposal to take back to their memberships.

Mr. Geiger said last week that he believed the union A.F.T.'s alignment with organized labor was no longer a big concern for the N.E.A.

But "the way we define our democracies is very different," he added.

The A.F.T.'s open balloting and unlimited terms of office contrast sharply with two of the N.E.A.'s cherished policies: secret-ballot voting and limits on how long elected leaders can serve. The N.E.A. also guarantees minority representation throughout the union.

In addition, Mr. Geiger pointed out, the A.F.T.'s board has fewer than 40 members, while the N.E.A.'s has 150 seats.

"Their board is smaller, has more power under their constitution, and can move faster," he said. "It takes us longer, but we believe that when we do something, we have more buy-in."

One A.F.T. official, however, compared the N.E.A. structure to "a slow-moving dinosaur."

Ultimately, neither side could let go of some traditions.

"It would be too hard to go back and tell your members that everything they've ever fought for was unimportant," one A.F.T. official said.

'Still Amicable'

Despite their decision to end the talks, the unions are expected to continue working together on issues of common concern, the union presidents said last week.

Mr. Shanker said responding to the school-privatization movement and other challenges to public education will require the energy and manpower of both organizations.

Already, some state affiliates of the unions collaborate on lobbying and other activities.

The N.E.A. and A.F.T. affiliates in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Florida, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania have "no raid" agreements designed to keep up good relations during bargaining elections, Mr. Geiger noted.

And some officials said that if local and state relations continue to improve, support for the national merger could bubble up again soon.

"I think that while it was still amicable, people decided to throw in the towel. Then we could figure out how to work together as two separate organizations," said one union staff member.

"All I know is I don't want to go back to the 70's and 80's," added Mr. Geiger. "We don't want to go back to the fight."

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