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Unions Set To Tie The Knot

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In what could be one of the most significant developments in American education in decades, the presidents of the two national teachers' unions announced in January that they have come to terms on a merger.

If delegates to the conventions of the 2.3 million-member National Education Association and the 950,000-member American Federation of Teachers vote in favor of the plan when they meet weeks apart in New Orleans in July, the unions will begin drafting a constitution for what would become the largest union in the nation's history, with some 3.2 million members.

Critics worry that the consolidated union would be a powerful force against vouchers and charter schools and give considerable advantage to teachers in contract negotiations. "They will defend public education on their own terms and not on somebody else's," said Richard Seder, director of education studies for the Reason Public Policy Institute in Los Angeles, a free market think tank. "The unions are looking at their own self-interest and preserving public education for themselves rather than what is best for the children."

Both unions have felt besieged by the growing calls for vouchers and, to a lesser extent, charter schools. They also have chafed at being blamed for schools' ills, including low test scores.

Union leaders are confident that the merger will be good for schools. "We want to save public education and improve it," said AFT presdient Sandra Feldman.

Bob Chase, president of the NEA, agreed. "There are a lot of folks out there united to undermine public schools," he said. "For the two organizations that have the same goals—to improve public education and ensure that public school employees' needs are being met—not to work in a united way makes no sense."

The tentative merger, announced in a "joint progress report," comes after more than four years of formal talks. If all goes according to plan, the first elections for the merged organization could be held as early as 2002, following the drafting and adoption of the constitution and an "interim period" when the new group would begin operations. During that time, the heads of the two national unions would be known as "founding presidents." The NEA president would have the constitutional duties of president, while the AFT leader would serve as executive vice president.

The "conceptual agreement," which must be hammered into a set of principles for delegates to vote on this summer, appears to resolve key outstanding issues that had stalled earlier merger talks. Last month, for example, union leaders confirmed they had overcome the thorny issue of affiliation with the AFL-CIO. The merged organization would be part of the giant labor federation, the leaders decided, but state affiliates would be free to decide for themselves. [See "Closer To The Altar," February.]

Still, some issues remain unsettled, including the roles of state and local affiliates. "Our goal is to create a structure combining the best of the AFT's commitment to locals and [the] NEA's reliance on strong state organizations," the report states. "But we are still searching for the best way to give locals the option of providing their own services or choosing to rely on state organizations."

State and local affiliates of the two unions would be encouraged, but not required, to merge. Any such "unity agreements" would have to be approved by the national organization.

What is clear, the document says, is that the new organization's core "jurisdiction" would be education, from preschool through higher education. But it also would give full membership rights and a voice in governance to noneducation employees such as state and local government workers. Currently, the AFT has 85,000 members whose jobs are not related to education. These union members are represented by vice presidents and policy councils at the national level. Although some NEA state affiliates represent noneducational workers, they are not associated with the national union.

The membership question, Chase said, was "an issue we had to talk through and do some compromising on. It's something different for us."

As envisioned, the new union would be governed by seven full-time national officers, a 37-member executive board, and a leadership council of several hundred members. These posts would be filled through elections held every four years.

Election procedures had been a sticking point in negotiations. Under the agreement, convention delegates would vote by secret ballot—a cherished NEA tradition—but their votes would be recorded by state and local affiliates. The AFT has long had an open voting process.

Because of widespread antipathy toward organized labor and teachers' unions in particular, some NEA and AFT leaders expressed hope that the merged group would use its power wisely. "This has to be perceived as, and actually become, a powerful lobby for kids," says Adam Urbanski, an AFT vice president, "because otherwise, I think it is indeed vulnerable to a backlash from the public."

Feldman called the AFT's executive committee to Washington, D.C., the weekend of January 24 to brief the members personally on the conceptual agreement for merger. According to those present, there was little opposition to the plan.

Opinion within the NEA appears to be more divided. The union has long prided itself on its independence, and some members even shun the term "union."

Robert Gilchrist, president of the Iowa State Education Association, says teachers in his state want to remain independent of the AFL-CIO and focus solely on education. "Our primary concern," Gilchrist says, "is that the national affiliate be an independent organization."

Meanwhile, the two negotiating teams will hash out the myriad issues involved in a merger. "I would guess that many people would support the principles and await the particulars," says John Ryor, executive director of the Florida Teaching Profession-NEA and the NEA's president from 1975 to 1979. "I do believe that external attacks on public education, and unionism in general, have created a clearer picture of what's at stake in the long haul."

—Ann Bradley

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