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Published in Print: October 30, 2002, as Governor's Race Tests Power Of Merged Teachers' Union

Governor's Race Tests Power Of Merged Teachers' Union

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A new major player is making its presence known in Florida gubernatorial politics: a 122,000-member teachers' union that, by most accounts, has turned a long-shot candidate into a serious contender for the state's top job.

Next week's matchup between Democrat Bill McBride and incumbent Republican Jeb Bush is the first Florida governor's race since the state's two major teachers' unions merged into a single organization, the Florida Education Association. The resulting synergy, say labor leaders and some political analysts, has paid off handsomely not only for the union-backed Democratic challenger, but also for supporters of three education-related proposals on the Nov. 5 ballot there.

The Union
Imprint: Part I

  • Governor's Race Tests Power of Merged Teachers' Union

"I do think the merger has reinvigorated the union," said Aubrey Jewett, an associate professor of political science at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. "They've been able to marshal their resources more effectively."

Like many other observers, Mr. Jewett suspects that Mr. McBride, a Tampa lawyer and political newcomer, could not have prevailed in the Democratic primary against former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno without the help he got from the FEA. The union paid for television commercials featuring him and his education plans. Now, with the FEA's continued support, Mr. McBride has pulled up to a near dead heat with Mr. Bush in some polls.

The Florida election could have far-reaching implications for education policy. Mr. McBride has harshly criticized Mr. Bush's school improvement agenda, which has made Florida home to the country's only statewide publicly financed voucher program. In addition, the FEA has given significant financial and grassroots support to the campaigns for three state constitutional amendments on the Florida ballot that would lower class sizes, create a "universal" preschool program, and change the governance of the state's university system. ("Education Issues Hit Home in Florida Election," Oct. 23, 2002.)

'Very Providential'

Given the stakes for her members in the election, FEA President Maureen Dinnen says the merger came at the right time for the unions. "It was very, very providential that we did this," she said, "because we are taking on such a challenge."

The two groups that became the FEA in 2000 were the Florida Teaching Profession-NEA, an affiliate of the National Education Association, and the Florida Education Association/United, a member of the American Federation of Teachers. Their combined membership represents an impressively large pool of potential campaign volunteers, and the merger has also played off the traditional strengths of the two state affiliates.

As in most states, the Florida NEA had more staff members devoted to statewide activity, while the state AFT affiliate was known for having powerhouse locals in large urban areas, like Miami-Dade County. The merger also means that energies previously expended on duplicate planning activities are now directed at getting the teachers' message out to voters.

What's more, NEA locals in Florida are now able to coordinate campaign efforts with the AFL-CIO in the state. While the AFT has long been allied with the national labor federation, the NEA has not; the merger changed that in Florida.

"There's no question that we would never, as two separate organizations, have been able to achieve what we've been able to achieve thus far," said Pat Tornillo, the president of the United Teachers of Dade.

Mr. Tornillo remembers when such teamwork wouldn't have been possible. In the early 1980s, Dade County was the battleground for a bitter dispute over which union would represent local teachers. Said the local union president: "We haven't always gotten along; we weren't that smart."

Those turf wars between the NEA and the AFT have largely subsided in Florida and elsewhere in recent years. In fact, the chance to combine political efforts has been an argument used in favor of a merger of the two at the national level.

Such justifications, though, were not enough for NEA members in 1998, when they struck down a unification plan at their annual meeting. Affiliates in three states have opted to merge rather than wait for their parent organizations, and Florida union officials say their experience this year shows the political benefits of doing so.

"I think there's an opportunity here for the nationals to take a look at Florida and see what can be done," Ms. Dinnen said.

Same Old, Same Old?

Still, some question whether the merger has really added value to labor's efforts. The two separate organizations generally took the same sides politically in the past, and the advent of a single, bigger interest group that can put its muscle behind one candidate could put off some voters. Given that potential downside, Gov. Bush has sought to portray Mr. McBride as a puppet of the teachers' union.

"I really don't think there's any difference," said Gary Landry, a policy analyst with the James Madison Institute, a conservative think tank in Tallahassee. "It's the same union, and the same people are running the union as before."

The real measure of success won't be known until next week. If the union prevails, Mr. McBride could begin to chip away at Jeb Bush's education policies. But if it doesn't, the FEA could face an even more hostile Republican governor—in a state where most observers expect the GOP to hold on to majorities in both chambers of the legislature.

As Mr. Jewett of the University of Central Florida put it: "There's serious bad blood between the rank-and-file teachers and the governor down here."

Coverage of leadership issues in education—including goverance, management, and labor relations—is supported by Broad Foundation.

Vol. 22, Issue 9, Pages 20-21

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