Published Online: May 16, 2006
Published in Print: May 17, 2006, as NEA, AFT State-Level Affiliates Merge in New York

NEA, AFT State-Level Affiliates Merge in New York

The National Education Association has given its blessing to the merger of the two teachers’ unions in New York state—a step officials say will take the NEA’s membership to an all-time high of 3.2 million.

The NEA approval came May 6, just a day after members of the American Federation of Teachers-affiliated New York State United Teachers, or NYSUT, voted in favor of the marriage at their annual convention in Rochester, N.Y.

New York will join Florida, Minnesota, and Montana as states with merged NEA and AFT unions.

The merger will combine NEA/NY’s 35,000 teachers with NYSUT’s 525,000 members. The new union, to be called NYSUT NEA-AFT, is set to come into being Sept. 1. Locals have until June 30 to rewrite their bylaws to show their change in affiliation.

“This is something we had hoped to achieve for a long time,” said NEA/NY President Robin Rapaport. “This creates a single, consistent voice for education around the state.”

But the leadership’s euphoria over the merger, which was several years in the making, was accompanied by rumblings of dissent in at least one local. Philip Rumore, the longtime president of the 4,000-member Buffalo Teachers Federation, the largest NEA/NY local, said his organization would not rush into a decision. “I don’t believe in monopolies, … and I don’t believe bigger is better,” Mr. Rumore said.

He said that, among other options, the union is considering becoming an independent local, joining a new organization, or establishing a state organization made up of the Buffalo union along with other locals.

Because of the vast disparity in the sizes of the two merging unions, Mr. Rumore warned that the NEA/NY staff would be placed at the bottom of the new seniority lists, and that the board of directors of NEA/NY would be cut to nearly half, with fewer votes among them on the new board of the combined organization.

More Statehouse Clout?

But proponents of the merger sought to focus on the benefits of the deal: additional services and more clout with the state legislature and the state department of education. New York is the only state where the AFT affiliate tends to be more powerful at the state level than the NEA.

“The merger would provide a much broader array of services for members. In every aspect, it has improved conditions for all educators in New York, especially for NEA/NY members,” Mr. Rapaport said.

As for keeping the entire leadership of NEA/NY in place, that was out of the question because “this is not a merger between equally sized enterprises,” he said.

He said Buffalo, in particular, should want to become part of the new union because the district has been facing tough fiscal times.

Locals will also have to deal with other changes. For instance, the NEA bylaws prescribe a secret-ballot system, but in the merged union, officials will have to cast their ballots publicly.

New York had a merged union in the 1970s, after the NEA and AFT unions merged in 1972. But the union split in 1976 over philosophical differences.

Those differences have since been worked out, said Randi Weingarten, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, the AFT’s New York City affiliate. Her union, with 160,000 members, is the largest local in the country.

“This is a recognition that the climate has changed so much and become so hostile toward teachers, and unions speaking with one voice would be a very effective way of countering that hostility,” she said.

Ms. Weingarten favors a merger of the two national unions as well, although an attempt at an NEA-AFT marriage in 1998 failed.

“The teacher union would be in a lot different shape,” she said, “had we succeeded on a national merger.”

Vol. 25, Issue 37, Page 5

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