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Published in Print: May 20, 1998, as Money Issues Often Drive Unions Apart

Money Issues Often Drive Unions Apart

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The Ohio Education Association donated $500,000 to Every Child Counts, the campaign to pass a 1-cent sales-tax increase for public education that state voters defeated by an overwhelming margin this month.

On the opposing side were the Ohio AFL-CIO, which contributed $25,000 to Vote No on Issue 2, and the Ohio Association of Public School Employees, an affiliate of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, which chipped in $30,000.

The split between the 112,000-member Ohio affiliate of the National Education Association and other labor groups shows that when it comes to deciding how public dollars should be spent, unions don't always agree. It also illustrates a potential hurdle in gaining members' support for a formal alliance between the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers, which operates under the vast umbrella of the AFL-CIO.

Proponents of a merger between the NEA and the AFT often argue that the United Organization, as the proposed new national teachers' union is being called, would have a stronger voice by joining the AFL-CIO.

Bob Chase, the president of the NEA, just this month wrote in a column that members of AFL-CIO unions are "the natural allies of teachers and other school staffers" and "the parents of our students."

To be sure, there are many examples of close cooperation between various labor organizations on education and other issues. The battle in California over Proposition 226, which would require unions to obtain members' annual written permission before collecting political contributions, has united a broad coalition of labor groups.

But unions also quickly part company on thorny issues of public finance.

Class-Size Fight

A parent-led effort in Oregon to qualify a ballot initiative to reduce class sizes was derailed last month by a legal challenge brought by the Oregon Public Employees Union, an AFL-CIO affiliate. The parents worked closely with the Oregon Education Association, which provided behind-the-scenes technical assistance, said James Sager, the president of the NEA state affiliate.

The public employees' union worried that without a specific revenue source, the initiative would amount to an unfunded mandate that could result in cuts in other parts of the state budget.

Despite the setback, Mr. Sager said he's confident that parents, the teachers' association, and labor groups can form a coalition to press for class-size cuts in the next legislative session. "We understand that although class size was important for us and our members," he said, "OPEU had to do what it was necessary to do."

Mr. Sager, whose union voted in favor of the national merger, said the recent conflict doesn't undermine his support for AFL-CIO affiliation because unions that belong to the labor federation are free to set their own course.

The principle of "local autonomy" is one of the hallmarks of the AFL-CIO, which is a voluntary, national federation of 72 autonomous national and international labor unions. The AFL-CIO has 51 state federations (including Puerto Rico's) and nearly 600 central labor councils that bring together more than 30,000 local unions.

Under the principles of unity that would govern a national teachers' union merger, the United Organization would affiliate with the AFL-CIO. State affiliates would be able to determine their own relationship to the labor federation, but the new organization's goal would be full affiliation at every level. Delegates to both unions' national conventions will vote this summer on whether to proceed with a merger.

'Competing Interests'

While advocates of affiliation with the labor federation argue that it offers strength in numbers, Julius A. Maddox, the president of the Michigan Education Association, sees things differently.

The MEA now represents education employees, he said, but that would change under the United Organization because its membership would include state and local government workers and health-care employees.

"We don't believe enough discussion has been given to what the focus of this new organization would be," he said, "or how, in fact, to resolve conflicts from competing interests when those interests are part of the same group."

The Michigan teachers' unions don't see eye to eye on a resolution pending in the state legislature that would put a constitutional amendment before Michigan voters guaranteeing a set level of public school aid. The bill also includes assurances of funding for local governments and is backed by the MEA and the Michigan Municipal League, a Lansing-based association of city governments.

But the Michigan Federation of Teachers & School-Related Personnel is unlikely to support the measure, according to Rollie Hopgood, the president of the 30,000-member group, who said the MEA has "a narrow vision" on the issue of school funding. "We don't work in isolation--we're part of the AFL-CIO," Mr. Hopgood said. "We're interested in other things other than just the public education system."

In an economic downturn, Mr. Hopgood warned, a guarantee of funding for schools could result in cuts in other vital state services such as child care, welfare, and prisons.

The MEA also is concerned that a national merger and affiliation with the AFL-CIO could affect its potential for growth.

Since September, the 146,000-member MEA has gained 1,000 members, many of whom were previously represented by AFL-CIO affiliates, Mr. Maddox said. But after a national merger, the MEA would no longer be permitted to accept such members under Article 20 of the AFL-CIO's constitution, he said. According to the provision, unions that engage in such behavior are not protected against raids themselves.

The teachers' unions in Michigan already have a no-raid agreement, but it leaves the MEA free to go after workers represented by other unions, such as AFSCME.

Kathleen Lyons, a spokeswoman for the NEA, said its Michigan affiliate has "nothing to fear" from national affiliation with the labor federation. She said afl-CIO unions raid each other frequently despite the rules designed to discourage such competition.

Jobs at Stake

In California, unions are divided over Proposition 223, a ballot measure initiated by United Teachers Los Angeles that would require districts to cap administrative expenses at 5 percent of their budgets. (See story, Page 19.)

Neither the California Teachers Association nor the California Federation of Teachers has taken a position on the June 2 question that their combined local is championing. But the California Labor Federation opposes it.

"Our basic concern is that many essential employees in education, in classified [positions] and in administration who we represent, could be in the 5 percent and would lose funding," said Judith Barish, the communications director for the AFL-CIO affiliate.

The bottom line for unions, of course, is looking after their own members--an objective that sometimes can make solidarity difficult.

The recent Ohio ballot question, Issue 2, divided labor groups along a number of lines. The Ohio AFL-CIO, led by the Ohio Federation of Teachers, opposed the sales-tax hike. Part of the concern was that sales-tax increases are a regressive form of taxation that hit low-income workers hardest. ("Ohio Voters Reject Sales-Tax Hike for Schools," May 13, 1998.)

One Ohio union, however, departed from the AFL-CIO pack to endorse Issue 2. The Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, an AFSCME affiliate, supported the measure, fearing that the state budget would be cut and members' jobs lost if taxes weren't raised for schools.

The 20,000-member Ohio Federation of Teachers was dead set against Issue 2, which would have generated $1.1 billion a year by raising the state sales tax from 5 cents to 6 cents per dollar. Half the money would have gone to schools, the rest to property-tax relief.

Neither the Ohio Federation of Teachers nor the Ohio Education Association believed that the measure would solve Ohio schools' funding woes, but their leaders made very different political calculations about the ballot question. The teachers' unions also are backing different candidates for the U.S. Senate.

"Our feeling was, if this thing passed, the legislature would wash its hands of it and say, 'We did our job,'" leaving schools with little hope of new funding, said Ronald Marec, the president of the teachers' federation and the secretary of the Ohio AFL-CIO's education committee.

Mike Billirakis, the president of the Ohio Education Association, argued the opposite: Ohioans needed to pass the measure and send a strong message that they would pay more for education on a statewide level. With the defeat, he said, legislators aren't likely to take steps to generate more money for schools.

Despite their differences, the Ohio teachers' unions work together on such issues as collective bargaining and student discipline.

Members of the National Education Association who aren't familiar with the AFL-CIO may not understand the clout they would have on education issues within its structure, Mr. Marec argued. "Labor's attitude is, if you've got trouble with your plumbing, call a plumber," he said. "If the problem is in education, talk to the teachers. There's that kind of recognition of each area of expertise."

Vol. 17, Issue 36, Pages 1,13

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