The Fourth of July weekend this year was a time not of celebration but of disappointment for the leaders of the National Education Association.
Some 57 percent of the delegates to the union’s convention that weekend rejected a leadership-supported plan to merge the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers into a single powerful labor organization. NEA President Bob Chase found himself in the awkward position of having to back out of the marriage that he and AFT President Sandra Feldman had painstakingly arranged over the past two years.
Although the NEA vote dashed any hope for an imminent national merger, the leaders of both unions quickly sought ways to allow their state affiliates to unite, as several now want to do. That hardly seemed a problem for Feldman; 97 percent of the voting delegates at her organization’s summer convention endorsed the national merger plan. As for Chase, he managed to get delegates to call for state-merger guidelines and to reaffirm their general support for NEA-AFT unity.
Chase said he hopes his union’s board of directors can take up the guidelines at its October meeting. “I think it’s important that we deal with it as soon as possible,” he said. “I don’t think we want to place those states looking to merge in a difficult position.”
But forging an acceptable plan for state mergers could be difficult. Negotiators will have to decide, for example, how to structure members’ dues to pay for the services both unions offer. “The guidelines are not going to be easily arrived at because you get at the heart of what a national merger is all about,” said NEA-New York President Gregory Nash. “But I think that it can be done.”
In the past, state mergers were barred altogether, in hopes that national unity would smooth the way. Now, a flurry of state marriages could “take the pressure off having a national merger,” said Linda Bacon, president of the NEA-affiliated Pinellas County Classroom Teachers Association in Florida and a proponent of a combined national union.
An anti-merger campaign organized this spring by a group of NEA state and local affiliates helped defeat the national pact. Members sent out detailed objections, made one-on-one contacts with delegates at the convention in New Orleans, and orchestrated a sophisticated strategy for the two-hour debate on the merger plan, which was officially known as the “principles of unity.”
They also set the terms of the floor debate by highlighting how the merged union would depart from such longstanding NEA traditions as secret balloting, minority-representation guarantees, term limits for officers,
and independence from the AFL-CIO labor giant. “We in Louisiana do fear that our past beliefs are being diminished simply for the sake of change,” thundered Mary Washington, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators. “This makes a mockery of our core beliefs.”
In contrast, proponents shied away from the details of the merger accord and argued that unity would help the union
defend public education against attacks from conservatives and advocates of vouchers for private school tuition. But delegates
didn’t see that as a compelling need to change. “Maybe we bit off more than we could chew for the first vote,” said Bacon of Pinellas County. “If we could have found a way to do interim steps, perhaps that would have been acceptable.”
Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, a New York state NEA affiliate, helped lead the opposition to the principles of unity. He believes the anti-merger campaign would have failed with an open ballot. In the NEA, delegates vote in secret; the votes of AFT delegates are public and reported to constituents. The secret ballot “allows for dissent,” Rumore said. “That’s the strength of the NEA.”
The principles of unity called for a blend of the two voting methods. Individual delegates’ votes would have been kept secret, but tallies of local and state affiliate votes would have been recorded.
At the AFT convention, held in New Orleans July 17-20, many speakers criticized the NEA delegates for repudiating the unity agreement and failing to follow the wishes of the association’s rank-and-file members, whom they asserted favor a merger. The AFT’s Sandra Feldman called the sentiment in the NEA against affiliating with organized labor “old-fashioned snobbishness.” The AFT has long been a member of the AFL-CIO, and the merged teachers’ union would have kept that affiliation.
Day Higuchi, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, attended both conventions because his local is one of the few affiliated with both national unions. Many NEA delegates, he said, “didn’t have a clue” about what the principles of unity meant. “It was shocking,” he said, “not so much because the promotion of the principles of unity was badly organized as much as the perception that it didn’t need to be organized.”
Although guidelines that allow for state mergers could be approved within the next year, the forecast for national unification remains hazy. “I think that it’s not going to happen very immediately,” said Feldman, “because we just visited this process, and the only mandate we really have right now that would be mutual would be for state mergers to go forward.”
The day after the unity vote, NEA delegates did pass a merger resolution calling for future negotiations to be more strongly directed by members’ concerns. Specifically, it requires that NEA negotiators analyze a survey of this summer’s delegates and regularly consult an advisory committee made up of leaders from large and small state affiliates.
This new process is less cumbersome than an alternative considered by the NEA delegates that would have required future merger talks to “safeguard the democratic, governance, and representational structures of the NEA.” It called for a constitutional convention to draft the merged organization’s governing documents. Faced with both proposals, NEA delegates passed the less-restrictive merger policy by a wide margin.
Most education observers agree that the two unions are destined to become one. The only question is when. “In the long haul, it has to happen,” said Bruce Cooper, a professor of educational administration at Fordham University in New York City. Many NEA members, he said, don’t yet feel the need to join forces with their old rivals in the AFT. But if school vouchers become more widespread--and Cooper is confident they will--the old rivalries will seem less significant. “The press to unify will probably not come from the inside but from without,” Cooper said.
Meanwhile, both Chase and Feldman have pledged that their organizations will not go back to fighting each other. Said Feldman, “We certainly do not intend to go to war.”
--Jeff Archer and Ann Bradley