NEA Leaders Agree in Concept To Affiliate With AFL-CIO

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Throughout years of on-again, off-again merger talks between the two major national teachers' unions, one of the big stumbling blocks to unification has been the issue of affiliation with the AFL-CIO.

But in recent months, leaders of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have reached a general understanding that if they merge, the new group would seek ties to the powerful coalition of labor organizations.

NEA President Bob Chase confirmed in an interview this month that the merger committees for the two groups reached such an understanding last year. "We have agreed on a concept for affiliation with the AFL-CIO. Exactly what that affiliation will be has not yet been finalized."

He stressed, though, that it would be up to state and local affiliates to decide for themselves whether to join the coalition.

"There's no question that what happens in the American labor movement impacts on our organization," he said in the interview. "And there's no doubt that a positive labor movement would be a help to our members."

From its founding in 1916, the 950,000-member AFT has been a member of the AFL-CIO, whose members are not individuals, but unions. Factions within the 2.3 million-member NEA, however, have been hesitant to identify themselves with the group that is for many the symbolic center of the American labor movement.

But the improved prospects for merger in recent months raise the possibility of a new teachers' union becoming a giant within the AFL-CIO. And united, they could prove to be a formidable force on the political landscape as well.

The NEA leaders' decision to consent in concept to affiliating with a bastion of old-fashioned unionism also comes at a time when Mr. Chase is calling for what he calls the "new unionism," or emphasizing professional issues in teaching, along with the bread-and-butter ones.

Mr. Chase said he announced the understanding to NEA members at last July's meeting of the Representative Assembly in Atlanta.

Both teachers' unions continue to guard the details of their discussions, but an article in the current issue of an AFT publication, American Teacher, also highlights what it calls some "important advances." As the article notes: "Recently both sides reached an understanding that any unified organization would be affiliated with the AFL-CIO."

Power in Numbers

The affiliation question must ultimately be decided by a vote of the NEA's delegates at their annual meeting. Whether the question is put before the delegates at the NEA's forthcoming meeting in New Orleans in July "depends on what kind of progress we make," Mr. Chase said.

Still, any sign that his organization may be turning the corner on the issue of AFL-CIO affiliation raises questions about what such a relationship could mean for the teachers' unions, the American labor movement, and public education. The sheer numbers alone paint an impressive picture.

Already, the NEA is the largest single union in the country. A merger with the AFT would create an organization representing more than 3 million workers. It would also for the first time give educators the greatest single bloc within the AFL-CIO. Currently, the largest union in the coalition is the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which boasts a membership of 1.4 million.

Observers say the teachers would achieve a tremendous synergy in power by becoming such an influential force within the AFL-CIO--which now has nearly 70 affiliated unions that, in turn, represent approximately 13 million workers.

"Its major implication from the NEA's standpoint is that it gives it a major new political platform," said Leo Troy, a professor of economics at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, Newark Campus. "The implication for the AFL-CIO is that it will continue that group's move on to greater public-sector domination. The NEA will be the leader as the largest single union in the world in pushing that public-sector agenda."

A frequent critic of the unions, Mr. Troy believes that agenda would be "for much more government spending."

Others say that affiliating with the AFL-CIO could also have important symbolic implications for the NEA.

"[Affiliation] had been a sore point because it would move the NEA into the mainstream of the labor movement," said Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. "My impression is that a lot of NEA members didn't want to think about themselves as a union but as a professional association."

In fact, Mr. Chaison said, the public sector--though still a minority within the AFL-CIO--has been growing within the coalition for years, while many private-sector unions representing traditional blue-collar workers have been stagnant or even lost members.

The afl-CIO was formed in 1955 by a merger of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations, two groups that had represented differing philosophies of organized labor.

Some Unconvinced

Some NEA members are uneasy with AFL-CIO affiliation.

In Alabama, as in some other Southern states, the discomfort of associating with the labor coalition has to do with "the cultural history in this state," said Paul Hubbert, the executive secretary of the Alabama Education Association.

"In Michigan, you've had the auto workers, and they've put a lot of bread on people's table," he said. "But we haven't had that strong of a union background."

Mr. Hubbert, who acknowledges the benefits of merger with the AFT, said the NEA's national leadership is wise to allow state and local affiliates to decide for themselves on the question of affiliation with the AFL-CIO.

"We have 300 or so delegates to the Representative Assembly, and I think the vast majority of them would support merger with the AFT," he said. "I don't know if I can say the same thing would be true with affiliation with the AFL-CIO."

As for the AFT, the union has viewed the coalition as a logical alliance.

"The AFL-CIO has always fought for full funding and equity in education," AFT President Sandra Feldman said last week. "They're pretty much on the same side of the issues as we are. And these are the working families whose children go to our schools."

A merged teachers' union, she added, would "bring a whole lot of new energy to the AFL-CIO."

Other Progress

Without divulging details, Mr. Chase also confirmed that the two unions have reached general understandings on two other key merger issues: The combined union would have some form of voting by secret ballot, which the NEA has and the AFT doesn't; and minority-group representation, which the NEA guarantees on governing bodies, would continue in some fashion.

Other important details remain unsettled, said Michael Johnson, the president of the New Jersey Education Association and a member of an NEA merger-advisory panel.

"I think philosophically [the two unions] have turned the corner, but they have not turned the corner realistically," said Mr. Johnson, who is cool to the idea of merger. "I don't think it's much closer than before."

But others are eager. The Minnesota Education Association is in the process of merging with the state's AFT affiliate, and has already decided to join the AFL-CIO.

"Local teachers are in a position where they want to work together, and they don't want to be with organizations that aren't working together," said MEA President Judy Schaubach.

Web Only

Web Resources
  • The NEA and AFT have posted their joint statement on collaboration. It can be found on either the NEA or the AFT Web site.
  • The AFT also has posted a statement made by Sandra Feldman, AFT president, at the Washington press conference announcing the unions' collaborative efforts.
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