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In Unprecedented Move, NEA, AFT Forge Partnership To Address Issues

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Once rivals competing for the allegiance of members, the country's two national teachers' unions have created an unprecedented partnership to address the issues of teacher quality, school safety and discipline, and school infrastructure needs.

A new 30-member NEA-AFT Joint Council will research and promote model solutions, work closely with up to 10 school districts that are making changes, and hold at least two national conferences next year, National Education Association President Bob Chase and American Federation of Teachers President Sandra Feldman announced at a press conference here last week.

"We have been adversaries in the past, but now we are joining together for our children," Ms. Feldman said.

The initiative represents the most noteworthy cooperative venture ever between the 2.3-million member NEA and the 950,000-member AFT. It also underscores the increasing alignment of the two unions on major issues affecting public education in recent years.

"It's certainly unprecedented for there to be any formal structural link between the two organizations," said Tom Mooney, the president of the AFT-affiliated Cincinnati Federation of Teachers and a member of the new council. "They've both been part of bigger coalitions on lobbying Congress, but never together on these substantive professional issues.''

A handful of local affiliates of the AFT and the NEA have merged in recent years, and both organizations participate in larger coalitions involving other groups like the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. But this is the first such collaboration involving just the two unions at the national level.

Mr. Chase said the joint council should "not be viewed in the context of a merger," and both presidents further said that the joint council would continue even if ongoing talks of merger between the two national unions broke down.

But many observers took last week's announcement as a clear signal that the two organizations were testing their ability to work closely together.

"If the joint council is successful in its work, it will increase the likelihood that a merger would occur sooner," said Adam Urbanski, the president of the Rochester (N.Y.) Teachers Association, an AFT affiliate. "I think it's wise not to get married to a stranger. So think of this as an organizational form of dating."

More Councils Planned

Since taking office last year, Mr. Chase has been calling on the unions to broaden their role beyond collecting bargaining for better wages, hours, and working conditions. He has said repeatedly that unions should also work in cooperation with--rather than as adversaries against--district administrators and officials to bring about school improvement. ("A Different Kind of Union," Oct. 29, 1997.)

This call for what he terms "new unionism" has brought his organization more in line with the smaller AFT, which has in recent decades devoted ample resources toward promoting high academic standards and improving student discipline.

"Now there are probably more similarities between the two organizations than there are differences," said Julia E. Koppich, a professor of education policy at the Claremont Graduate School in California.

In addition to holding its first conference next May, the joint council's work group on teacher quality will examine: encouraging more teachers to seek advanced certification from the national board, recruiting more minority members into the profession, and allowing teachers to mentor and evaluate other teachers.

The council's efforts on school safety and discipline will include a conference next fall, an analysis of state laws and districts' policies, and the production of a training video on classroom management.

No conference is yet planned on school infrastructure issues, but the council plans to convene a group of experts from the worlds of property development, finance, government, business, and education to propose public-private partnerships aimed at helping districts build new schools and fix old ones.

"We need to think outside the box if we're going to provide the children of the 21st century with the schools they need," Mr. Chase said.

Stoking Merger Hopes

The two union presidents said their organizations would soon announce the creation of several similar joint councils that are forming among their state and local affiliates.

News of such cooperation bodes well for those union leaders who favor the eventual merging of the two organizations. "I think this is very consciously trying to send the public a message that the purpose of a merger is not to become the biggest union around, but to be a better advocate for public education," Mr. Mooney said.

The AFT and the NEA have held merger talks off and on for the past five years. Although a single combined national union would wield tremendous clout and eliminate much redundancy, merger talks have stumbled over the two organizations' differences in governance, structure, and culture.

The AFT is a member of the AFL-CIO; many within the NEA, especially those who continue to identify themselves as members of a professional association, the NEA's historical role, have resisted joining the massive coalition of labor unions. Voting by NEA members and delegates is by secret ballot, unlike in the AFT. Nationally, AFT affiliates represent more urban districts, while NEA state affiliates have traditionally been a more dominant voice in state politics.

In one signal of greater cooperation, the AFT and the NEA agreed last year to stop competing for the exclusive bargaining rights for each others' current members. The "no raid" agreement is up for renewal next year.

"These issues are very complex," Ms. Feldman said at the press conference. "But what still divides us are not issues that deal with education."

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Web Resources
  • The NEA and AFT have posted their joint statement on collaboration. It can be found on either the NEA or the AFT Web site.
  • The AFT also has posted a statement made at the Washington press conference by Sandra Feldman, AFT president.
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