Glimmers of Unification

By Karen Diegmueller — September 01, 1990 4 min read

The nation’s two major teachers’ unions have long been avowed adversaries, jousting for local affiliates, gibing each other publicly, and differing on substantive educational issues. But that may be changing. Remarks last July by the president of the American Federation of Teachers hint at a warming in relations and even raise the possibility of an eventual merger of the AFT with its larger rival, the National Education Association.

“I am happy to report that, over the last year, our relationships with the NEA have become significantly better,” Albert Shanker told delegates to the AFT’s biennial convention in Boston. “I hope when we meet two years from now [at the next AFT convention], there is a positive report on a whole bunch of things we’ve done to bring us closer together.”

Shanker said that the AFT has long promoted “the idea that there ought to be one united teachers’ union in this country.”

He noted that he and NEA President Keith Geiger have had “two good meetings” to discuss issues that concern both unions. But, he stressed, “This is not an indication that there’s a piece of paper in my pocket that we ought to sign.”

Reacting to those comments, Geiger acknowledged that the two union leaders have established “an ongoing dialogue” and have agreed to work together on educational issues. Merger is “not one of my priorities now,” Geiger said during a press conference at the NEA’s convention in Kansas City, Mo. But he did not explicitly reject the possibility, as NEA leaders have in the past.

Although both presidents emphasized that no formal talks on a merger are being conducted, Shanker’s decision to broach the subject in his address to the 3,000 AFT delegates was seen as significant, given his cordial working relationship with Geiger, who was elected president of the NEA a year ago.

Combining the NEA—whose more than 2 million members already make it the nation’s largest independent labor union—and the 750,000-member AFT would create an especially potent educational and political force. Both unions are politically active. In the 1987-88 elections, the NEA ranked 4th and the AFT 28th in political-action-committee contributions to federal candidates.

In addition, a merger would enable union leaders to better use the huge sums of money they now spend on turf battles; both organizations regularly try to capture local bargaining rights held by the other.

The rapprochement between the unions was evident in a number of similar themes Geiger and Shanker struck in their convention addresses, given the same week. Each president emphasized his union’s commitment to restructuring the educational system and charged that teachers’ willingness to change has not been met by similar attitudes on the part of school boards and administrators.

“We’re the ones who’ve been trying to alert this country to the dangers,” Geiger told the 8,340 NEA delegates. “We need help. We need to know somebody cares besides us.” Shanker in his address said that he was “very disappointed because we’ve been out there alone pushing for reform and, unfortunately, we don’t really have any eager partners.”

Then, in a highly unusual move following the conventions, Shanker used his union-supported newspaper column to praise an elementary school program called “jump start,” proposed by Geiger at the NEA convention. The program, Shanker wrote, “should be supported.”

There are other indications that the relationship is warming. The unions have cooperated in the past year in opposing a provision of a federal child-care bill that would allow parents to use vouchers for church-operated care. In addition, Shanker said the two organizations also will cooperate on key election campaigns this fall and indicated that “joint activities in the professional area” were being planned.

“I have been amazed at how quickly they are converging in their policy positions,” says Lorraine McDonnell, a senior political scientist with the RAND Corporation.

Despite the new atmosphere of cooperation between the organizations, numerous philosophical and procedural obstacles to a merger remain. For example, the NEA has a longstanding policy of remaining independent of other labor organizations; the AFT, on the other hand, is affiliated with the AFL-CIO, the mammoth labor federation. In addition, the NEA conducts its elections by secret ballot; the AFT holds open elections, in which the votes of each delegate are recorded.

While Shanker asserted at the convention that two-thirds of the AFT’s members would favor a merger today, NEA leaders—even if inclined to combine the organizations—could face a more formidable task in persuading their vast and diverse membership to approve such a change.

Also at issue would be the exact terms under which a merger could be negotiated and which union’s policies would prevail in the new organization. The AFT’s local affiliates, concentrated in large, urban areas, operate autonomously; a number have negotiated ground-breaking teacher contracts instituting peer review, site-based management, and new types of business partnerships. The NEA, by comparison, wields its power at the state level and is viewed as being more cautious about reform initiatives.

“I would think that some of the AFT’s strong locals would not be terribly overjoyed at being incorporated into the NEA’s state-dominated system,” says Charles Kerchner, a professor of education and public policy at Claremont Graduate School in California. Kerchner says he believes the long-standing tension between the unions has been a creative force.

How would a merger affect the average teacher? Not much, according to Susan Moore Johnson, an associate professor at Harvard University’s graduate school of education. Johnson says she doubts a merger would “change things dramatically for local teachers and how they do business with school boards.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as Glimmers Of Unification