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Published in Print: August 8, 2001, as Unions Cement Partnership To Work on Range of Projects

Unions Cement Partnership To Work on Range of Projects

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The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have gotten the go-ahead to forge an ongoing alliance to pool their advocacy efforts.

At separate meetings last month, leaders of the two teachers' unions approved a new "NEAFT Partnership" that will permit joint projects at the state, local, and national levels, ranging from education conferences to political and legal campaigns.

Some union leaders hope the initiative eases the way for an eventual merger by giving members more experience working with their counterparts in the other organization. But in the meantime, the collaboration could add to the considerable clout that the 2.6 million-member NEA and the 1 million member AFT already wield individually in policymaking circles.

"If you were in a legislature, and two lobbyists from the NEA and AFT came in, and they were arm in arm, you'd probably pay closer attention," said Bruce S. Cooper, a professor at the graduate school of education at Fordham University in New York City.

The new venture marks the latest chapter in the decade-long saga of merger talks between the unions. Although the AFT has shown little reluctance to merge in recent years, many within the NEA have resisted the idea for fear of losing some of the organization's hallmarks, such as voting by secret ballot at the group's annual meeting and its independence from the AFL- CIO. The AFT belongs to the umbrella group for organized labor and insists on maintaining its affiliation.

The NEAFT Partnership grew out of attempts to get merger plans back on track after NEA delegates in 1998 resoundingly rejected a proposal for unifying the two organizations at the national level. Although negotiators believed this summer was still too soon to consider another unification plan, the partnership was seen as a way to let the two groups work together more closely while remaining separate organizations. ("NEA Board Approves AFT 'Partnership' Pact," Feb. 21, 2001.)

Delegates to this year's NEA annual meeting in Los Angeles passed the new plan by a vote of 59 percent to 41 percent on July 6. That was followed July 11 by the unanimous approval of the measure by the AFT's 42-member executive council at the federation's biennial educational issues conference in Washington.

A United Front

According to the new agreement, joint projects will be planned by a committee of 30 union leaders, with each union appointing 15 members. In many respects, the panel resembles a joint council that the two unions created in 1997. But while that earlier arrangement was formed to plan specific activities—such as a conference on teacher quality—the new partnership is more open-ended.

It will likely be several weeks before the new committee meets to begin planning any collaborative ventures, but delegates at the NEA's meeting in Los Angeles weren't lacking for ideas. Many, for instance, said they'd like to see coordinated campaigns advocating more federal funding for special education and Head Start.

"Both the AFT and the NEA have been talking about 'priority schools,' about helping schools that are low-performing," said Judy L. Schaubach, the president of Education Minnesota, one of three merged state affiliates of the two unions. "This is, for me, a classic example of where the two organizations ought to be working together."

Passage of the plan also reinstates a "no raid" agreement in which the two national unions pledge not to help affiliates take each other's members for at least two years.

Although unsure whether the partnership will speed up merger plans, many observers nonetheless say that the two unions are destined to become one. Leo Troy, an economics professor at Rutgers University's campus in Newark, N.J., believes the real impetus for merging will come from outside the two organizations, as public schools face increasing competition from school choice programs, such as voucher initiatives.

"Any heightened competition will drive them together to the extent that they are able to thwart that and maintain their monopoly positions," Mr. Troy said.

Gay Issue Deferred

Also at the NEA's annual meeting last month, the union followed through on a plan to table a resolution calling for new educational programs aimed at ensuring that schools provide a "safe and inclusive environment" for homosexual students. Instead, NEA leaders agreed to appoint a task force to study the issue and gather more advice from members before recommending further action. ("Delegates Debate Partnership With AFT," July 11, 2001.) Delegates also elected three new members to the NEA's nine-person executive committee, one of the organization's most important decisionmaking panels: Pennsylvania science teacher Becky Pringle, outgoing Mississippi Association of Educators President Michael Marks, and Mike Billirakis, the outgoing president of the Ohio Education Association.

Vol. 20, Issue 43, Page 9

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