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Toward a More Perfect Union

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A proposed merger of the NEA and AFT raises important questions about the advantages and shortcomings of a single union.

American teachers are making history and setting records. Just 30 years after the beginning of collective bargaining in education, the two national teachers' unions are poised to merge, representing the largest labor consolidation in U.S. history. If preliminary plans come to fruition, the 2.3 million-member National Education Association and the 950,000-member American Federation of Teachers will fuse to create the largest single union in the nation. And if, as predicted, about half the NEA members also join their AFT brothers and sisters in the AFL-CIO, then, for the first time, the labor movement in the United States will be predominantly public-sector employees.

Though this amalgamation is far from accomplished—representatives are likely to vote on it this summer, but it will be 2002 before the elaborate merger is fully implemented, according to the plans—it does raise important questions about the advantages and shortcomings of a single union of teachers, the reasons for the merger, and some of its potential effects. I had a chance to discuss the merger issue with Albert Shanker, AFT president from 1974 until his death in 1997. He was convinced that teachers need to speak with one voice, to stop fighting among themselves, and to work together, as he put it, "to preserve public education, the greatest democratic institution in our society."

He pointed out that the AFT and the NEA waste valuable time and money battling each other for members. Called "raiding," the aim is for one union to wrest bargaining rights from the other by getting a majority of teachers in a local to switch affiliation. All told, Shanker found that about as many AFT members changed to the NEA as the other way around. The net effect was a wash, with neither union gaining. A merger, he assured me, would stop these futile battles.

But becoming the biggest U.S. labor union and the only national union of teachers may present problems, as well. Shanker, for example, was well aware of the shortcomings of large size and monopoly. A single, giant union could easily become an oligarchy, leading to centralized power, the re-election of the same leaders term after term, and the weakening of dissent within union ranks. He was concerned that a merger could make the combined union more centralized and isolated from the needs and problems of the rank and file, with fewer incentives and pressures to innovate and improve services.

As social scientist Seymour Martin Lipset has noted, "Trade unions and other large organizations develop a system of rational organization, hierarchically organized. But the price of increased bureaucracy is the concentration of power at the top and the lessening of influence by the rank and file members who try to change unions." Perhaps the new teachers' union can overcome this tendency by making best use of the legacy of both the NEA and AFT.

In fact, the NEA has worked overtime to ensure that all teachers have a voice in internal decisionmaking. Its constitution imposes term limits on its presidents and requires that a minority-group member be elected president at least once every 11 years. The NEA Representative Assembly, which more than likely will survive the merger with the AFT, is the largest democratic deliberative body in the world, including teacher representatives from every state. Some have even said that the NEA is "democratic to a fault."

Where is the balance point—the golden mean—between the openness and inclusion of the NEA and the speed and focus of the AFT?

Perhaps the merger with the lean, feisty AFT will balance the newly created union's need to be open and highly representative with an ability to respond quickly and take controversial stands. Shanker and I discussed the key differences between the NEA and AFT and how these might be reconciled during a merger. It was true, he commented, that the AFT has no term limits for presidents, tends to avoid the secret ballot in elections, and is less elaborately democratic. But the massive size of the NEA, its numerous required steps in making major decisions, and the regular turnover of presidents all mean that greater discretion devolves to the executive director—who becomes the NEA's "institutional memory" and is appointed, not elected.

Where is that balance point—the golden mean—between the openness and inclusion of the NEA and the speed and focus of the AFT? Merger, then, will mean more than the joining of two organizations: It will require working accommodations between leaders with different norms and practices, many of which have roots in the founding of the NEA in 1857 and the AFT in 1902. Can the AFT merge without being swallowed up by the mammoth NEA, some two and a half times its size? Can the NEA play ball with the AFL-CIO and still keep faith with its conservative Southern and Western members?

Another issue is the cultural fit between the NEA and the AFT. More to the point, the two unions are products of different forces and different eras. The AFT was shaped during the pre-New Deal, anti-Communist, democratic-socialist movements, which were heavily Jewish and almost exclusively Eastern and urban. The founding member—holder of Card No. 1—was the liberal philosopher John Dewey. By way of contrast, the NEA was founded as a more conservative association with a national focus that included school superintendents and principals. It became a union by necessity, under the leadership of Terry Herndon, executive secretary from 1973 to 1984, who came out of the Michigan labor movement.

A quick look at the legal jurisdictions in which the merger must occur tells a tale, too. In the 12 states where laws either fail to protect teachers' collective bargaining rights or prohibit negotiations between school boards and teachers' unions outright, the AFT has no real presence and nothing to merge. In an additional 21 states where laws protect teachers' collective negotiations, the NEA state associations are powerful, and the AFT is less active.

In states with strong labor movements and large metropolitan areas—such as California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, and Pennsylvania—the NEA and AFT state affiliates are both active and more competitive. Even when the NEA-AFT merger is completed in the next century, little will change in many places, because the two national unions have already staked out separate areas of influence.

In areas where the NEA and the AFT have long competed, the story is more complex. Shanker recalled 1974, when the New York state AFT and NEA "merged" to form the New York State United Teachers. Trust was so low after this merger that the AFT faction took control of the new state organization and many NEA delegates abandoned it altogether, starting another association affiliated with the NEA. In Los Angeles, though, the United Teachers of Los Angeles is a merged local, showing that in cities where both the NEA and the AFT are strong and active the two groups can collaborate for their mutual benefit.

It is fascinating just how different the result of the AFT-NEA merger may be in various locations. Clearly the unification of the two national unions enhances their clout in the nation's capital. A corporate arrangement between the two well-staffed, highly expert national offices will mean a stronger, more unified teachers' voice in pressing Congress, the White House, and the U.S. Department of Education. Lobbying should be effective, because few politicians or policymakers will ignore an organization 3 million strong, with members in every community in the country. At the state level, the NEA leadership will be more active and visible in all but a dozen states. Under the merger letter signed by the NEA and the AFT, each state will be free to reach its own merger agreement. This will generally favor the NEA. Locally, AFT leaders will continue to show a strong presence in many of the larger cities, with little conflict except in places like Baltimore, where both the AFT and the NEA have represented the teachers at different times.

So why merge now? Is it the growing concern about the fate of American public education that requires a powerful, unified national teachers' group? Or perhaps some teachers are worried that recent "school reforms" have gone too far, fracturing and severely weakening public schools. As American policymakers at national, state, and local levels experiment with radical decentralization and various "market" approaches—including charter schools and even vouchers—some teachers believe such "privatization" undermines public confidence in and support for public education.

But a single teachers' union can hardly paper over the incredible diversity, complexity, and history of education. Though a merger may create the "one voice" that Shanker wanted, it may also produce a more diluted, tentative, and less creative response unless teacher leaders focus on improving schools—along with strengthening the status of teachers. Consolidation could give America's teachers the platform, support, and leverage they need to improve education.

How might the "New Organization" (as the proposed new union is temporarily being called) structure itself for action and effectiveness? A big union can tackle big problems in big ways. Beyond lobbying and protecting the pay and benefits of teachers, the new union could annually sponsor three national, high-visibility projects to improve schools for our children: available preschooling for all who want it, say, or computers on every desktop, or literacy and numeracy for every able child by 3rd grade.

Think how the New Organization—working at the national, state, and local levels—could adopt these concerns and take concerted action. The union could support local and state bond issues to build and staff early childhood centers for all preschool children wanting a half-day or full-day program. It could create computer academies in every community to link school and home. And it could promote tutoring programs for all 3rd graders until they can read and compute to a satisfactory, appropriate level. The possibilities are infinite.

Albert Shanker's life dream for teacher unity will take years more to accomplish. The process of merger faces many questions as yet unasked. What name will the new national union adopt? (I would avoid the acronym of Britain's largest teachers' union, the National Union of Teachers, or NUT.) How will the new union, whatever it is called, be organized and governed? How can the role and status of teachers best be strengthened through an association of professionals? And most important, how can America's largest single union use its newfound power to benefit schools and children? We must wait to see.

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