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Merger Talks Break Off

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The recent spate of negotiations was viewed by many inside and outside the two unions as the most serious attempt yet to bring the 2.2 million-member NEA and the 850,000-member AFT together under one roof. Officials from both unions concede that the devil was in the details. Voting policies, terms of office, and other differences in structure stalled the discussions when the groups were unable to find common ground. The AFT is affiliated with the AFL-CIO, which the NEA, an independent organization, has always resisted joining.

Observers also say the unions were concerned about how local and state affiliates would divide their powers under a new national organization. Traditionally, the NEA has had a strong presence at the state level, while the AFT's power has been concentrated in its local affiliates.

NEA President Keith Geiger said he believed the AFT's alignment with organized labor was no longer a big concern for his union. But, he added, "the way we define our democracies is very different.'' The AFT's open balloting and unlimited terms of office contrast sharply with the NEA's cherished secret balloting and term limits. Ultimately, neither organization could let go of such traditions.

Despite the decision to end the talks, the unions intend to continue working together on issues of common concern. The school-privatization movement and other challenges to public education, Shanker said, will require the energy and manpower of both organizations. Already, some state affiliates of the two unions collaborate on lobbying and other activities. And affiliates in a handful of states--Minnesota, Wisconsin, Florida, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania--have agreed not to fight over bargaining rights held by the other.

Officials from both unions said that if local and state relations continue to improve, support for a national merger could bubble up again. One staff member suggested the unions' leaders decided to call off the talks while things were still amicable. That way, he said, "we could figure out how to work together as two separate organizations.''

"All I know,'' said Geiger, "is that I don't want to go back to the 1970s and '80s; we don't want to go back to the fight.''

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