Following Own Advice, A.F.T. Votes To Decentralize

By Peter Schmidt — September 09, 1992 5 min read
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“We don’t need to waste resources fighting each other at a time when we are facing so many other external dangers,’' Mr. Shanker said.

Delegates at the AFT convention here last month voted to accept a plan prepared by the union’s “futures committee’’ calling for the divisions within the 796,000-member union to have more autonomy and for the union’s leadership to be more open to advice from members in the field.

The delegates approved amendments to the union’s constitution needed to pave the way for the plan and endorsed its quick implementation.

The changes will be overseen by Ed McElroy, the president of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Rhode Island AFL-CIO, who was elected to the post of national secretary-treasurer. He succeeds the late Robert Porter, who for 30 years had overseen the day-to-day operations of the union.

Albert Shanker, the president of the AFT, told the nearly 4,000 delegates that the plan responds to changes in the union, including rapid growth in membership outside of its traditional base of public school teachers.

Tensions have emerged among the union’s various divisions: teachers, paraprofessionals and school-related personnel, higher-education faculty members and professionals, nurses and health-care workers, and state and local government employees. Members of some divisions felt the union had not been paying enough attention to them, Mr. Shanker said.

“What we are trying to do with this changing structure,’' he said, “is to create new ways of dealing with the problems that we have.’'

The changes also should give the divisions more power to change their working conditions or reform the institutions they serve, AFT officials said.

“If we are going to restructure the schools, we have got to restructure the union,’' said Anthony McCann, of the Shenendehowa (N.Y.) Teachers Association, echoing the sentiments of several other delegates.

“We can’t carry out a reorganization in schools if we are going to carry on the same old hierarchal union model,’' Mr. McCann said, adding that he perceived “a restlessness in the ranks’’ because the AFT had not trimmed its bureaucracy or given members more influence.

New Policy Councils Named

Mr. Shanker said the plan is the result of two years of “no-holds-barred’’ discussions involving recommendations from more than 1,500 AFT members.

The delegates approved a constitutional amendment recognizing, for the first time, private and public school teachers as a constituent division, clarifying the distinctions between other AFT divisions and the union’s teacher members.

In what was regarded as the most significant change, delegates approved constitutional amendments creating “program and policy councils,’' as well as seats on the AFT executive council, for each of the divisions.

The councils are seen as a way of generating new ideas and opportunities for involvement in the organization’s national leadership, which has remained stable for many years.

After the convention, Mr. Shanker appointed the members of the newly established program and policy council for teachers, culling them from the membership of the existing AFT executive council as well as the ranks of local teachers’ unions.

In other divisions, the program and policy councils will be formed by simply renaming the divisions’ steering committees, which also were appointed by Mr. Shanker.

One delegate asked Mr. Shanker why he appointed the members of the program and policy councils, rather than allowing members to elect them.

“We are going to move in that direction, but we are not ready to do it now,’' Mr. Shanker said, noting that elections within the union’s 50,000-member division for state- and local-government employees could be unfairly dominated by one local with about 26,000 members.

“The people who will be appointed will be appointed because people in their own divisions want them, not because of my individual preferences,’' Mr. Shanker pledged.

The program and policy councils will meet separately to form recommendations to forward to the executive council regarding their division’s specific concerns.

Better Relations With NEA

The futures committee’s plan also created more formal procedures for setting the union’s priorities; provided for the national AFT headquarters to help state federations become more effective and self-sufficient; and set governance and financial standards for local and state federations.

Several of the committee’s recommendations simply called on the union to set a new course in various areas. Because these items did not require constitutional amendments, they may be modified in coming years, spokesmen for the union noted in recent interviews.

Mr. Shanker welcomed delegates to question or comment on the plan for change within the AFT but appeared to discourage additional debate, asserting that union members had already had a significant say in forming the plan and “the usual give and take of debate on a matter as complicated as this might not clarify the issue.’'

As the plan was overwhelmingly approved, most delegates described it as a welcome and necessary change.

“Policy has been made in Washington. That is similar to policy being made by a superintendent downtown,’' said Helen Bernstein, the president of the United Teachers of Los Angeles. Ms. Bernstein said she hoped that the union, in giving its locals more autonomy, might also overcome what she perceives to be an East Coast bias in its decisionmaking.

Joyce A. Elliott, the president of the Arkansas Federation of Teachers, predicted that the changes would give small state affiliates such as hers a greater voice in the union’s affairs.

Union officials doubted the changes would affect the AFT’s relations with the National Education Association, which appear to have improved in recent months.

Mr. Shanker dismissed suggestions by reporters at a press conference that the AFT and NEA may be considering a merger. But he cited the presence at the convention of Mary Hatwood Futrell, the immediate past president of the NEA, as evidence that relations between the unions have improved, and he said “the prospects are pretty good’’ that AFT and NEA affiliates may merge in some states, such as Illinois and Florida, where their memberships are close to the same size. (See related story, page 15).

In addressing the delegates, Mr. Shanker urged them to seek better relations with their counterparts from the NEA.

“We don’t need to waste resources fighting each other at a time when we are facing so many other external dangers,’' Mr. Shanker said.

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