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N.E.A. Delegates Agree To Reopen Merger Talks With A.F.T.

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Minneapolis

The first item before the National Education Association's Representative Assembly was perhaps the most important of the assembly's four-day meeting here: whether to renew merger talks with the American Federation of Teachers.

After some deliberations, the 8,712 N.E.A. delegates last week approved reopening the discussion of unification.

Earlier talks, conducted over an 18-month period between top leaders of the rival unions, broke off in December when negotiators failed to agree on key issues important to both unions. The sticking points included differences in voting procedures, disputes over guaranteed minority representation, and the question of affiliation with the A.F.L.-C.I.O., of which the A.F.T. is a member. (See Education Week, 1/11/95.)

Despite these practical and philosophical differences, the N.E.A.'s board of directors this spring voted 130 to 30 to ask delegates whether to give the merger another shot.

Delegates from the New Jersey Education Association wore their answer on their sleeves: They sported bright yellow T-shirts printed with the words "A.F.T. Merger R.I.P. 1995." Dennis Testa, the president of the state affiliate, told delegates that the A.F.T. has not joined a battle in New Jersey over teachers' pensions.

Some delegations sought a one-year trial period to foster "positive working relationships" between the two unions before a resumption of merger talks.

Bob Haisman, the president of the Illinois Education Association, said the two organizations exist in a "climate of distrust and hostility" in his state. "We need time to look at the impact of merger on our members," he argued.

The Iowa Education Association also backed a go-slow approach.

But those delegations were outnumbered by states that favored more talks, including California, Florida, Minnesota, Montana, and Pennsylvania.

Annette Palutis, the president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, pointed out that her union had worked closely with the Pennsylvania Federation of Teachers to defeat a voucher proposal in that state. (See related story.)

"I almost resent the energy and time we are devoting to this issue," Ms. Palutis said of merger. "We are in the fight of our lives, and, folks, it isn't with other teachers."

The issue was politically sensitive enough, however, that the union's president, Keith B. Geiger, held a roll-call vote the following morning. In that vote, 66 percent of the delegates favored renewed merger talks.

Delegates have always prized the Representative Assembly as the largest democratic deliberative body in the world. But even democracy has its limits, the N.E.A. is discovering.

Every year, as delegates take positions on controversial social and political issues, editorial writers around the country chastise the union for its generally left-of-center views and attention to topics that have nothing(See education.

Those topics often arise as "new business items" that can be submitted up to the second day of the meeting by a petition of just 50 delegates. The open process has often allowed a handful of delegates to command the attention of the entire assembly, sometimes to address issues that are pet peeves, not policy.

This year, delegates considered changing the rules to put tighter restrictions on such items. Proponents argued the change would give delegates more time to deliberate. But delegates who like the current process argued that the change amounted to a "gag rule."

"Good ideas percolate here. We value diversity. Let's keep it that way," argued Don Crawford, a member of the N.E.A.'s board of directors from California. "This is an effort to diminish the influence and impact of the individual delegate."

Although the proposed rule change was defeated, several delegates noted that the number of new business items this year was already down. That was due in part to the efforts of Mr. Geiger. In recent visits to state caucuses, he urged members to be thoughtful about new business items and to try to achieve their goals through other channels.

Delegates also defeated proposals aimed at reining in union resolutions--position statements on a variety of issues--which some delegates said also provide fuel for the N.E.A.'s critics.

href="/info-epe/staff.htm#ab1">Ann Bradley

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