Merger Camps Making Push in Home Stretch
As next month's historic merger vote nears, the leaders of the National Education Association are making an all-out effort to persuade their members to vote in favor of uniting with the American Federation of Teachers--at the same time that NEA members who oppose a merger are coordinating efforts to defeat it.
With so much interest in the upcoming vote, Bob Chase, the president of the NEA, held a press briefing here last week to discuss the voting process and the "principles of unity" that would govern the creation of what is being called the United Organization.
Critics of the merger framework, meanwhile, are trying to drum up support for an alternative resolution should delegates defeat the principles.
Delegates to both unions' national conventions, to be held in New Orleans, must approve the principles by two-thirds majorities for talks on a constitution and bylaws to proceed.
Mr. Chase said merger supporters don't yet have the votes they need, but neither do merger critics."We are confident that we will in fact get that two-thirds vote," he said. "We are working hard at it."
The board of directors of the 256,000-member California Teachers Association has endorsed the principles, Mr. Chase said. The CTA's support is considered key, because California represents 12 percent of the NEA's total membership.
But the national leadership's efforts are being clouded by a controversy in Puerto Rico, touched off by the recent passage of a collective bargaining law in the U.S. commonwealth.
The Federacion de Maestros de Puerto Rico, the 9,600-member AFT state affiliate on the island, circulated cards to school employees asking them to designate it as the exclusive representative of education workers, according to the NEA.
The challenge to the 22,000-member Asociacion de Maestros de Puerto Rico, an NEA affiliate, came at a sensitive time. The teachers' unions operated under a "national no-raid agreement" from Jan. 1, 1997, to the end of last month. It was meant to discourage such challenges, once a routine feature of teacher unionism, in states with collective bargaining.
But the agreement did not apply to Puerto Rico or non-collective-bargaining states in cases where no one organization had been designated to represent teachers, union officials say.
"We don't believe that the difficulties existing right now are in anyone's interests," Mr. Chase said of the situation in Puerto Rico. He added that the NEA affiliate there also has been active in trying to gain representation rights.
The two national unions plan to send a team to Puerto Rico to try to smooth over the dispute.
"There are accusations back and forth both ways," Sandra Feldman, the president of the AFT, said in an interview last week. "This is exactly the kind of conflict we're trying to avoid with the merger."
Up or Down
Mr. Chase and other NEA officers have been traveling the country this spring to answer members' questions about the principles. The AFT has not followed suit.
Negotiating teams spent "literally thousands of hours in the last four to five years" to reach the principles, Mr. Chase said. The unions have moved "closer together from a philosophical perspective" in that time, he added.
An NEA-AFT Joint Council, created last fall, is working on issues of teacher quality, school infrastructure, and safety and discipline. The unions plan to hold a conference here Sept. 25-27 on teacher quality, for example.
To spread the word about the principles of unity, the NEA has prepared a six-page flier that includes a chart showing current NEA and AFT policies and how they would be handled in the United Organization. The flier will be included in the packets given to the 11,000 delegates to the union's Representative Assembly when it convenes next month.
After debate July 4, the NEA delegates will vote yes or no on the principles of unity the next day. They cannot be amended from the floor or voted on separately.
The NEA also has a World Wide Web site on unity-- www.nea.org/unity --that includes questions and answers and a discussion area where members are posting their reactions. An NEA Unity Information Center responds to questions from delegates or members about the principles.
Gutting the NEA?
In the other camp, elected NEA officials have met twice to coordinate strategy to try to defeat the principles of unity. They include state presidents from Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, and New Jersey, along with the president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, the biggest NEA local in New York state. New York is the only state where the NEA's presence is overshadowed at the state level by the AFT.
Robert Haisman, the president of the Illinois Education Association, has submitted a "new business item" for consideration at the NEA's Representative Assembly should the vote on unity fail, according to Philip Rumore, the president of the Buffalo union.
The item calls for the unions to establish a permanent no-raid agreement and joint committees to work on issues of common interest, stopping short of a merger.
Mr. Rumore has circulated a paper outlining the dissenters' objections to the principles among state leaders, members of the NEA board, and the local affiliates that belong to the National Council of Urban Education Associations, a caucus within the NEA.
While supportive of the concept of merger, Mr. Rumore said the principles of unity include compromises on core issues--such as voting procedures and governance arrangements--that would "completely gut" the NEA.
"This is David versus Goliath," he said of efforts to defeat the principles of unity. "The whole leadership of the NEA and their finest PR people are lining up to shove this thing down our throats."
Vol. 17, Issue 39, Page 5