Shanker Remarks Renew Possibility Of Merger of Two Teachers’ Unions

August 01, 1990 7 min read

By Ann Bradley and Karen Diegmueller

Remarks made by the president of the American Federation of Teachers have raised anew the possibility of an eventual merger of the union and 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 convention in July. “I hope when we [the aft] meet two years from now, there is a positive report on a whole bunch of things we’ve done to bring us closer together.”

Mr. Shanker told the members gathered in Boston that he has had “two good meetings” with Keith B. Geiger, who was elected president of the nea a year ago, to discuss issues that concern both unions.

“This is not an indication,” the aft chief stressed, “that there’s a piece of paper in my pocket that we ought to sign.”

But he noted that the aft has long promoted “the idea that there ought to be one united teachers’ union in this country.”

Reacting to those comments, Mr. 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,” Mr. 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, Mr. 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 Mr. Geiger.

An organization combining the nea--which with more than 2 million members is already the nation’s largest labor union--and the 750,000-member aft would be an especially potent educational and political force.

Both unions are politically active. In the 1987-88 election cycle, the nea ranked 4th and the aft 28th in political-action-committee contributions to federal candidates. (See Education Week, May 23, 1990.)

Similar Rhetoric

The rapprochement between the unions was evident in a number of similar themes Mr. Geiger and Mr. Shanker struck in their convention addresses.

Both presidents emphasized their unions’ 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,” Mr. Geiger told the 8,340 nea delegates. “We need help. We need to know somebody cares besides us.”

In his address to the aft, Mr. Shanker said he was “very disappointed, because we’ve been out there alone pushing for reform and, unfortunately, we don’t really have any eager partners.”

In another sign of the warmer relationship, Mr. Shanker said the two organizations would cooperate on key election campaigns this fall and indicated that “joint activities in the professional area” were being planned.

The aft president also used his weekly newspaper advertisement, “Where We Stand,” to praise a new nea proposal for elementary education. The “Jump Start” plan “should be supported,” he wrote in the column that ran July 15 in The New York Times. (See related story, page 20.)

In addition, the unions have cooperated in the past year in opposing a provision of a federal child-care bill that would allow vouchers to be used for care provided in church-operated centers.

The emerging similarity in the unions’ positions on major educational issues has been apparent to Lorraine M. McDonnell, a senior political scientist with the rand Corporation.

“I have been amazed at how quickly they are converging in their policy positions,” she said.

Obstacles to Merger

Despite the new atmosphere of cooperation, numerous philosophical and procedural obstacles to a union merger remain.

The NEA has a longstanding policy of remaining independent of other labor organizations, while the AFT is affiliated with the AFL-CIO.

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 Mr. Shanker asserted last month 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 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 or8ganization.

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 more power at the state level and is viewed as being more cautious about reform initiatives.

Charles T. Kerchner, a professor of education and public policy at Claremont Graduate School in California, said he believes the existing tension between the two unions has been a creative force.

Whether local affiliates would continue to be free to experiment if the unions merged is a central question, he suggested, noting that the NEA’s state organizations have in some cases worked against innovation by the union’s locals.

“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,” Mr. Kerchner said.

Jeanne Allen, an education-policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, added: “I am just afraid [the AFT] would be swallowed up by the NEA. You would lose your voice of reason.”

But Susan Moore Johnson, an associate professor at Harvard University’s graduate school of education, said she doubted a merger would “necessarily change things dramatically for local teachers and how they do business with school boards.”

‘Streamlining’ the NEA

The two organizations currently are structured very differently, but that could change as the result of the work of an nea panel now considering ways to restructure the union.

The AFT has separate divisions for each of its non-teacher constituencies, including nurses, public employees, and paraprofessionals. Delegates at the July convention also approved creating a division to represent higher-education faculty and staff members.

The NEA, which also represents paraprofessionals and higher-education employees, does not have separate divisions.

However, the association has assembled a “special committee on organizational streamlining” that is examining the NEA’s policies, services, and structure. It is expected to make recommendations to the board of directors and the Representative Assembly next year. The proposals would be debated by the NEA membership during 1991-92 and voted on by the Assembly in 1992.

The 15-member committee, appointed by Mr. Geiger and chaired by Robert F. Chase, the NEA’s vice president, grew out of a “mission statement” adopted last year. In part, it states that the association should work “to increase the number of NEA members in all membership categories, and to structure NEA to meet the needs, objectives, and concerns of its diverse membership.”

One of the committee’s specific charges is to examine the union’s relationships with other groups representing organized labor and education organizations. Several panel members said they expected that the possibility of a merger with the AFT would be discussed, but Mr. Chase cautioned that observers “should not read too much into that.”

Members of the committee said in recent interviews that they were taking a “wide open” look at the NEA and had not reached any decisions. Many of the panelists agreed that much of their work was likely to focus on how to address the needs of the association’s increasingly diverse membership.

The committee held a hearing during the NEA’s meeting in Kansas City to gather ideas from the delegates, many of whom expressed concern that the committee not overlook the needs of the approximately 386,000 nea members who are not K-12 teachers.

‘Radical Restructuring’?

Roy C. Weatherford, an NEA director-at-large and professor of philosophy at the University of South Florida, told the delegates who attended the July 4 hearing that he favored a “radical restructuring” of the NEA to guarantee the union’s various constituencies a political representative elected solely by them at the local, state, and national levels.

Mr. Weatherford, who is not a member of the streamlining committee, said in an interview that he favored making the national representatives of the NEA’s constituencies vice presidents of the union. Those vice presidents--who would represent K-12 education, higher education, educational support personnel, students preparing to become teachers, and retirees--should be given control over their own policy, staff, and budget, Mr. Weatherford argued.

Such a configuration would not mean that the constituencies would become autonomous, he added. Instead, the new arrangement would give each sector added advantages in organizing new members and representing them within the overall framework of the association.

A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1990 edition of Education Week as Shanker Remarks Renew Possibility Of Merger of Two Teachers’ Unions