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Its residents have long had a reputation for being "Minnesota Nice." But the state's two teachers' unions are taking the art of non-confrontation to new heights: The traditional rivals plan to merge over the next two years.

The Minnesota affiliates of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association have each approved resolutions this spring that establish a timetable for merging.

If the plans stay on track, the single organization would elect its first officers in the spring of 1997, said Sandra Peterson, the president of the 28,000-member Minnesota Federation of Teachers, the A.F.T. affiliate. Its counterpart, the Minnesota Education Association, represents 46,000 educators.

The merger may be ambitious, Ms. Peterson added, but the possibility that the national unions are headed in the same direction could give Minnesota teachers added momentum.

This summer, the N.E.A.'s rank and file is expected to vote on whether to resume merger talks with the A.F.T. The national unions broke off negotiations on the subject last year, but the A.F.T. has already said it is willing to return to the bargaining table.

In Minnesota, after years of local battles over representation, there is no shortage of goodwill between the unions, Ms. Peterson said. "We just decided we had bigger fish to fry," she added.

The state affiliates already hold joint conferences, pool their lobbying efforts, and have a "no raid" agreement barring them from luring away each others' members. And the leaders of both groups are now meeting monthly.

In July, they expect "to get down to the nitty-gritty" of how a unified organization would operate, Ms. Peterson said. "The leadership realized the importance of this, and [they] have been able to put aside their egos."

Already, the state's merger experiments appear to be working. The unions in a suburban Twin Cities district and in the statewide technical-college system have successfully pooled their memberships.

If the deal comes through, the single organization would maintain its ties to both national unions, and membership dues would be split between the two.

But the union would be unlike any others. Only a few other states--among them Wisconsin, New Mexico, and Florida--have developed a relationship as cordial as the one in Minnesota.

Whatever happens, Ms. Peterson said, the unions "have gone too far to have to look back."

--Joanna Richardson



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