A plan to forge closer working relationships between the nation’s two largest teachers’ unions falls far short of the merger that leaders of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have been working toward for nearly a decade.
Drafted after months of pulse-taking, negotiations, and mediation by an outside firm, the partnership agreement won the endorsement of the NEA board of directors this month. If the “NEAFT Partnership” goes on to be approved this summer by a majority of the delegates to the NEA’s annual meeting—and by the AFT—the pact could yield jointly sponsored projects ranging from political- action campaigns to training workshops and school improvement conferences.
“It brings the opportunity for the NEA and the AFT to work in a coordinated way to a new level,” NEA President Bob Chase said last week.
Proponents of a merger argue that combining the NEA’s 2.6 million members with the 1 million members of the AFT would result in an organization whose ability to influence education policy outstrips that of the already powerful separate organizations. But planning for such a marriage has proved difficult. For example, the AFT includes members who work outside of education— such as in health care—while the NEA doesn’t at the national level. (Some NEA affiliates do include nonschool workers.) The AFT also is part of the AFL-CIO, and many within the NEA resist aligning themselves with the coalition of diverse labor groups.
Not Enough Time
In 1998, leaders of the two unions hashed out “Principles of Unity” designed to guide the proposed merger. While delegates to the AFT’s convention overwhelmingly approved them, their counterparts at the NEA’s annual meeting rejected them. (“Despite National Defeat, NEA and AFT Work Toward Mergers in States,” Aug. 5, 1998.)
Mr. Chase announced last summer that negotiations with the AFT would resume with mediation help from ThoughtBridge. The Cambridge, Mass.-based firm surveyed union members and facilitated meetings of the two unions.
Participants say that by December, they realized they didn’t have enough time to draft a merger plan that was likely to pass at the 2001 NEA convention.
Instead, the two sides drafted the partnership agreement as a way to increase cooperation. If it receives final approval, the partnership will be directed by 15 union members from each organization. Among other measures, the panel would help state and local affiliates form joint activities that pool resources and give members of each group exposure to the other.
“It’s not anywhere near where many of us felt we should be at this point,” said Eddie Davis, a North Carolina teacher on the NEA’s executive team and the union’s negotiating team. But, he added, “it keeps us on track.”
The AFT, which meets biennially, won’t hold a general assembly until 2002; however, its council plans to consider the partnership agreement this summer.
An ‘Uncertain Future’?
The agreement resembles a joint council formed by the NEA and the AFT in 1997. But union officials say that earlier effort was limited to specific projects in predetermined areas, while the new partnership would be more open-ended and ongoing.
“It isn’t just vague cooperation,” Sandra Feldman, the president of the AFT, said last week. “This will enable us to more formally work together, to put some resources into working together, and to create some structure for that.”
Some union leaders around the country, though, complain that the document fails to move the two unions more toward the creation of a single organization. Said Mark Simon, the president of the NEA- affiliated Montgomery County (Md.) Education Association: “It doesn’t make merger impossible, but it certainly changes the time frame, and throws it into a much more uncertain future.”
Other observers argued that a series of joint projects could lay the groundwork for closer ties.
“They have to let it bubble up, rather than be top-down,” said Bruce S. Cooper, an education professor at Fordham University and an expert on teachers’ unions. “I think they could mediate for 20 years at the national level, but not accomplish anything if it doesn’t happen at the state and local level.”
Still, the agreement could spark considerable debate. Philip Rumore, the president of the NEA-affiliated Buffalo (N.Y.) Teachers Federation and an outspoken critic of the 1998 merger plan, argues that the plan gives the panel that would direct the partnership too much authority.
He also said no such partnership should be forged until the NEA and the AFT reinstate a “no-raid agreement,” in which they pledged not to recruit each other’s members. That pact lapsed more than two years ago.
“It’s not a question that there shouldn’t be a partnership,” Mr. Rumore said. “My concern is with the specifics, and if they can be ironed out, we can support it.”
Michael Johnson, the president of the New Jersey Education Association and another leading opponent of the 1998 Principles of Unity, predicted that the partnership agreement would gain enough support.
“I’m encouraging discussion among the NEA leaders and members here, and I hope that the position of the New Jersey caucus is one of support,” he said. “I do believe this is the right thing to do.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 21, 2001 edition of Education Week as NEA Board Approves AFT ‘Partnership’ Pact