Published Online: July 8, 1998

NEA Delegates Reject Merger Plan, But Door to Unity With AFT Still Open

New Orleans

Though delegates to the National Education Association's annual meeting soundly rejected a plan July 5 that would have paved the way for the union's merger with the American Federation of Teachers, unity is far from a dead issue for the nation's two major teacher organizations.

The very next day, the NEA delegates approved a policy affirming their commitment to merging. It also establishes a process that will allow state affiliates to merge immediately. The pro-merger statement won delegates' backing July 6 over a competing policy described as "unity without merger," which pro-merger forces said would have hampered future negotiations.

Both sides called for union leaders to consult with a broad-based group of members before taking further steps toward merger, which would create one organization representing more than 3 million members. Specifically, the NEA will survey delegates about their concerns with the "principles of unity" that were rejected in the initial vote. The survey will examine such contentious topics as voting and governance arrangements, minority representation, and affiliation with the AFL-CIO. ("AFL-CIO Label Is Most Ticklish of Issues for NEA Members Deciding Union's Future," June 24, 1998.)

Judy L. Schaubach, the president of the Minnesota Education Association, which is poised to unify with the state AFT affiliate, said she was "ecstatic" that delegates had approved a pro-merger policy in the second vote.

"This makes sure we get the national talks back on," she said, "and it clearly states we're on the road to unification."

The new policy calls for the NEA board of directors to draft guidelines for state-level mergers.

In the initial vote held the day after Independence Day, nearly 58 percent of some 9,700 voting delegates cast their ballots against the principles of unity brokered by leaders of the two national unions over the past three years. The plan, which union leaders contended was essential to their efforts to counter increasing attacks against their organizations and public education, needed two-thirds approval to pass.

In debates and other discussions held during the four-day meeting here, many delegates declared that it was not the idea of merging they opposed so much as they feared the agreement gave up too many of the hallmarks of the NEA's governance structure. Many also worried the organization would lose its focus on school issues by joining with the AFT, which includes many noneducation-related employees, and by affiliating with the AFL-CIO, as called for in the principles.

"The delegates sent a clear message that the principles embodied in that document were not what they wanted," said Michael Cohan, a teacher from Union, N.J. "The organization spelled out in them was unworthy of being the successor to the NEA in my view."

Emotional Debate

The July 5 vote came the day after a two-hour debate in which more than 50 delegates went to the microphones to deliver impassioned, and sometimes tearful, speeches on both sides of the issue. Some asked NEA President Bob Chase, who strongly supported a merger, about the agreement's implications.

"We fear that our past beliefs, instilled in us by the NEA, are being diminished solely for the sake of change," said Mary Washington, the president of the Louisiana Education Association. "We have been led to believe that having an independent group of educators formed to hold the focus only on the needs of public education and public educators was a good thing."

In a speech broken several times by applause, Ms. Washington objected to the possibility of losing the NEA's current secret-ballot voting process and the union's explicit guarantees for minority representation. Like Ms. Washington, many who spoke out against the merger plan argued it would render the organization's governance less democratic. Although the combined organization would have included a broadly representative leadership council of some 400 members, the council would function only on an advisory basis; a 37-member executive board would have had the authority to carry out policy changes. ("NEA Delegates Down to Final Days To Weigh Merits of Merger With AFT," June 24, 1998.)

"We reject this merger agreement not because we do not want to work with the AFT, but because we do not want to become the AFT," said Robert Haisman, the president of the Illinois Education Association. "This flawed document brings about a top-down, dictatorial, centralized power right out of the 1950s, not out of the 1990s."

But supporters of a merger urged the Representative Assembly to view the proposed changes on such issues as secret-ballot voting not as a compromise with the AFT, but as an attempt to create a new organization that was better than either group is now.

"I'm sure glad Congress does not have secret ballot, otherwise we'd never be able to pin them down," said Tim Dedman, a delegate from Kentucky. "I think that the members who elected me back home deserve to know how I stand on an issue, whether we agree or not."

Others said a merger was needed to ensure that the two groups no longer wasted money and energy on campaigns to raid each other's members. More importantly, many supporters of the principles of unity maintained, the unions should present a united opposition to what they see as heightened attacks on public education from political conservatives.

Members from California, which boasts the NEA's largest delegation, pointed to their successful but costly campaign to defeat a "paycheck protection" ballot initiative that would have made it harder for unions to raise funds for political contributions. ("Unions Hail Save of Payroll Deductions for Politics," June 10, 1998.)

"We have learned that while we go back to the business of educating children after one of these bruising battles, they go back to their boardrooms and their offices and dream up the next scheme to put us in our places," Lois Tinson, the president of the California Teachers Association, said of unions' political foes. "They will not stop. They will get more intense. And the next time paycheck protection or vouchers come by--and they will--we must be united."

Leadership Support

In a keynote address devoted almost entirely to the merger proposal, Mr. Chase similarly warned of growing threats to unions and school employees. He urged his members to put aside concerns about individual elements in the proposal and to think instead of the potential to form a public education advocate of unprecedented size and influence.

"There's not a person in this room--myself included--who can't find details in the principles of unity that make them uncomfortable," he said. "There's not a person in this room who isn't tempted to oppose the whole package because of this discomfort. But we cannot give in to our fears."

The merger plan's defeat came despite the unified support of the NEA leadership, raising questions about whether it had accurately gauged its members' sentiments. Along with Mr. Chase, the five most recent past presidents of the 2.3 million-member organization all endorsed the proposal.

Mary Hatwood Futrell, who led the organization during most of the 1980s, delivered a 25-minute speech on behalf of a merger. Ms. Futrell, who spoke as the president of Education International, an organization of 23 million educators in 170 countries, urged members to "vote with a heart that says: No educator is my enemy. Every educator is my ally."

The popular past president's speech won the votes of some delegates, but upset others who complained that the NEA's leadership had allowed merger supporters to monopolize the podium. Ms. Futrell also addressed the caucus of her home state of Virginia and former President Keith B. Geiger spoke to members of his native Michigan, but both states' delegations remained overwhelmingly opposed.

The night before the vote, merger supporters also telephoned first-time delegates at their hotel rooms to ask them to consider voting for the principles.

Grassroots Opposition

But many in attendance agreed that the merger plan's opponents ran the more organized campaign. Including such pivotal delegations as Michigan and Illinois, the "Coalition for Democratic Principles" distributed anti-merger literature outside the meetings of state caucuses each morning.

The New Jersey delegation, the NEA's second largest, urged each of its members to get at least four delegates to sign a pledge to oppose the plan.

"I think what it proved was that the grassroots efforts of one delegate talking to another was more important than a leader standing at a podium saying what he thought was best," said Carol Feinstein, a drama teacher from Englewood, N.J., who voted against the proposal.

The opposition also carried out a well-orchestrated strategy of yielding to each other during the floor debate to ensure that their key speakers had a chance to make their case before the assembly. In contrast, the leaders of the Minnesota affiliate, who invited Minnesota Federation of Teachers President Sandra Peterson to join them here in a show of unity, never got to the microphone.

But after the defeat, pro-merger delegates went into high gear to draft a proposal to keep the unity talks moving forward and allow state-level mergers.

"To be honest, I was a little underwhelmed by the pro-unity side during the debate," said Mike Buckner, a 7th grade teacher from Clear Creek, Texas, who voted for the merger plan. "The opposition was very well organized. But as it is with anything, it is easier to knock something down than to build something up."

In a press conference immediately after the results were announced, Mr. Chase vowed to continue to push for a merger. And leaders of the 980,000-member AFT pledged to put the principles of unity to a vote at their organization's annual meeting, also to be held in New Orleans this month.

Sandra Feldman, the president of the AFT, said in a statement that she was disappointed by the no vote, but that "there is no doubt that something very positive for public education developed in our four years of negotiations."

Gregory Fossedal, the chairman of the Arlington, Va.-based Alexis de Tocqueville Institution and a critic of the teachers' unions, said the vote would preserve "at least some choice and competition" among organizations and was "a victory for teachers, parents, and children."

Mr. Chase emphasized that most of the delegates were supportive of the concept of unity, if not the particulars.

"It was very clear to me that the delegates, in fact, want us to continue to talk with the AFT about one unified organization," Mr. Chase said. "Even those who were not in support of the principles of unity that we brought forth indicated that they were supportive of the concept of unity."

While those who opposed the plan celebrated their victory after the vote with chants of "N-E-A! N-E-A!," delegates who voted to merge offered mixed views on the result's meaning.

"We could be moving forward with unification, and instead, we'll have to be debating it another year," said Mindy Bruce, a kindergarten teacher from Renwick, Kan. "I think it may also show a little bit of weakness to the people that have been bashing us. It shows that we can't get together."

But others hoped the cause of merger had moved forward despite the defeat.

"Because we've been through this, we know what all the issues are for the next time, which I believe will be next year," said Kathy Caswell, an 8th grade teacher from Red Lion, Pa. "We will have argued the issue already."

Associate Editor Ann Bradley contributed to this report.

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