Marriage of Convenience

December 01, 1989 4 min read

For two decades, San Francisco’s two major teachers’ unions squandered precious dollars battling over the right to represent the city’s teachers at the bargaining table. But no more.

This fall, the organizations—one an affiliate of the National Education Association, the other an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers—buried the hatchet and signed a merger agreement said to be the first of its kind in the nation.

The pact creates the second merged local in the country, to be called the United Educators of San Francisco. Union officials, however, say that San Francisco’s “unity agreement’’ will integrate its two locals more fully than the 1969 merger that created the United Teachers of Los Angeles, the nation’s only other combined local.

If San Francisco teachers ratify the agreement as expected, it will give members of the United Educators of San Francisco membership in both unions’ state and national organizations. Leadership posts in the UESF will be shared between the two locals until an election is held in 1991.

“This is going to unite teachers in a way we’ve never been before, so we can speak with a single voice in addressing the problems common to all teachers,’' says Joan-Marie Shelley, president of the San Francisco-American Federation of Teachers, one of the locals to be merged. Judy Dellamonica, president of the other local, the NEA-affiliated San Francisco Classroom Teachers Association, calls the signing of the agreement “an historic event.’'

The two organizations, neither of which has been able to gain a substantial hold on the city’s 4,000 teachers, had been discussing a merger for several years. Roughly one-third of San Francisco’s teachers belong to each union and a third are unaffiliated.

The divided ranks created a volatile situation in which the union locals constantly challenged one another for the right to represent the city’s teachers. Since 1977, there have been five “decertification’’ elections in San Francisco, three of which were won by the NEA affiliate. The final push for unity began after an election last May in which the AFT affiliate won back the right to represent the city’s teachers.

The union campaigned on a pledge of working for a merger, which leaders of both locals say is overwhelmingly favored by the city’s teachers.

Because of the dual affiliation that will come with membership in the merged organization, both national unions and their state affiliates will receive a share of members’ dues. Members will be allowed, under a provision of the pact, to “opt out’’ of membership in either union, but doing so will not change their dues.

This dual-membership arrangement has been approved by the unions’ state and national organizations. In Los Angeles, members of the merged UTLA belong to either the NEA or the AFT and their respective state organizations, but cannot belong to both without paying extra dues.

The “opt out’’ provision in San Francisco was devised to eliminate conflict with NEA policy, which bars its affiliates from entering into a merger that requires affiliation with the AFLCIO. The AFT is affiliated with the labor federation.

Union officials at the local, state, and national levels say that the agreement reached in San Francisco grew out of unique circumstances and does not signal an increased interest in mergers on the part of the national unions.

“I don’t want to give a lot of other people hope that this can work in their area,’' says Ed Foglia, president of the California Teachers Association, the NEA state affiliate. “This took a lot of history.’'

California is one of several places where the state affiliates of the two nationals have discussed a merger. Those talks have been driven by a belief that one strong teachers’ organization at the state level would be far better for teaching and education than two. But most agree that the path to unity is strewn with political, philosophical, financial, and other obstacles that may be too great to surmount.

In 1972, the New York State affiliates of the NEA and the AFT forged a merger pact that unified the two organizations into one. Members belonged and paid dues to both the AFT and the NEA. Three years later, however, the membership voted to disaffiliate with the NEA.

Foglia says that merger talks between his organization and the California Federation of Teachers have petered out; there has been no communication on the subject for a year, he says. The CTA enjoys a nine-to-one membership advantage and had proposed absorbing the CFT, a suggestion the other union rejected.

“I don’t think you’ll see anything like [San Francisco] anywhere else,’' says John Hein, the NEA’s assistant executive director for affiliate services. “Los Angeles is keyed to the circumstances in L.A. at the time of their merger. Both are one-of-a-kind situations.’'

Many contend, however, that the new United Educators of San Francisco will give the city’s teachers a much stronger bargaining agent that can attempt to restructure the educational system. Miles Myers, president of the CFT, believes that the constant threat of another decertification election had made the organizations “conventional’’ and prompted them to focus their attention on bread-and-butter issues at the bargaining table.

Says Myers: “It’s very hard to take risks if every time you try a new idea that has potential failure in it, somebody puts out a flier saying you made a mistake.’'

A version of this article appeared in the December 01, 1989 edition of Teacher as Marriage of Convenience