Unions Agree on Blueprint for Merging

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In what could be one of the most significant developments in American education in decades, the presidents of the two national teachers' unions last week announced a conceptual agreement to merge the organizations. Members will be asked this summer to endorse the creation of a single national union.

The merged teachers' union would become the largest in the nation's history, with 3.2 million members. It would be an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, based on an initial number of 1.4 million members, making the new union the largest single group in the powerful labor coalition.

If delegates to the conventions of the 2.3 million-member National Education Association and the 950,000-member American Federation of Teachers vote in favor when they meet weeks apart in New Orleans in July, the unions will begin drafting a constitution for what is now being called simply the New Organization.

The merger, if it comes to pass, would mark a historic moment, several observers said last week.

Just 30 years ago, noted Bruce S. Cooper, a professor of educational administration at Fordham University in New York City, teachers were only starting to gain bargaining rights. Now, the New Organization could become the largest sector in the AFL-CIO.

"To go from that to being one national union in 30 years is just incredible," Mr. Cooper said. "This could be one of most important developments of this decade, and maybe of the end of this century."

Critics of the teachers' unions worry that the consolidated union would be a powerful force against vouchers and charter schools, which they say many parents now support, and drive an even harder bargain on wages and working conditions.

"They will defend public education on their own terms, and not on somebody else's," said Richard C. Seder, the director of education studies for the Reason Public Policy Institute in Los Angeles, a free market think tank. "The unions are looking at their own self-interest and preserving public education for themselves, rather than what is best for the children."

Indeed, the union presidents cited "assaults" on public education as a primary reason to merge.

Sandra Feldman, the president of the AFT, said last week that the first elections in the merged organization could be held by 2002, following the drafting and adoption of the constitution and an "interim period" when the New Organization would begin operations.

During that time, the presidents of the two national unions would become "founding presidents" of the New Organization. The NEA president would have the constitutional duties of president, while the AFT leader would serve as executive vice president.

"We're putting together two very large, complex, interesting, and healthy organizations," Ms. Feldman said in an interview. "We want to save public education and improve it. We really feel that this is going to be good for schools."

Bob Chase, the president of the NEA, agreed. "There are a lot of folks out there united to undermine public schools," he asserted. "For the two organizations that have the same goals--to improve public education and ensure that public school employees' needs are being met--not to work in a united way makes no sense."

Both unions have felt besieged by the growing calls for vouchers and, to a lesser extent, charter schools. They also have chaffed at being blamed for schools' ills, including low test scores.

Best of Both

The "joint progress report" from the two leaders comes after more than four years of talks. The conceptual agreement, which must be hammered into a set of principles for delegates to vote on this summer, appears to resolve the key outstanding issues that had stalled earlier merger talks.

Last month, union leaders confirmed they had overcome the thorny issue of AFL-cio affiliation. ("NEA Leaders Agree in Concept To Affiliate With AFL-CIO," Jan. 14, 1998.)

Some issues still remain, including the roles of state and local affiliates. "Our goal is to create a structure combining the best of the AFT's commitment to locals and NEA's reliance on strong state organizations," the presidents' letter says. "But we are still searching for the best way to give locals the option of providing their own services or choosing to rely on state organizations."

State and local affiliates of the two unions would be encouraged, but not required, to merge. Any such "unity agreements" would be subject to approval by the New Organization. State and local affiliates would choose whether to affiliate with the AFL-CIO, except that AFT affiliates would continue their current link to the labor group.

What is clear, the document says, is that the New Organization's core "jurisdiction" would be education, from preschool through higher education. But it also would give full membership rights, and a voice in governance, to noneducation employees such as state and local government workers.

Currently, the AFT says it has 85,000 members whose jobs are not related in any way to education. These union members are represented by vice presidents and policy councils at the national level. Although some NEA state affiliates represent noneducational workers, they are not associated with the NEA.

The membership question was "an issue we had to talk through and do some compromising on," Mr. Chase said. "It's something different for us."

The New Organization would be governed by seven full-time national officers, a 37-member executive board, and a leadership council of "several hundred members," the presidents' letter says. Individuals would be elected to these bodies the same year and serve four-year terms.

The tentative election procedure for the New Organization combines the processes now used by the unions, which had been a sticking point in negotiations. Delegates would vote by secret ballot--a cherished NEA tradition--but their votes would be recorded by state and local affiliates. The AFT has long had an open voting process to allow members to know how their representatives voted.

Minority Representation

On the question of minority representation, which the NEA specifically guarantees, the New Organization would be committed to maintaining and expanding minority representation in leadership, governance, and staff, the presidents' letter says. The constitution is to contain a provision allowing the expansion of governing bodies to "ensure adequate ethnic minority representation."

Because of widespread antipathy toward organized labor, some union leaders expressed hope that the New Organization would use its power wisely.

"This has to be perceived as, and actually become, a powerful lobby for kids," said Adam Urbanski, an AFT vice president and the president of the Rochester (N.Y.) Teachers Association, "because otherwise, I think it is indeed vulnerable to a backlash from the public."

During the past few years, observed Julia Koppich, a California education consultant and the author of a recent book on teacher unionism, the NEA has moved closer to the AFT by embracing peer review, a system in which teachers counsel and evaluate one another. Previously, she said, "it was hard to find a positive program of the NEA, something they were for. Now, the NEA has begun to take a much more public and aggressive role in saying that the quality of public schools is important, and student achievement is important."

Mr. Chase said he expects the New Organization to continue the advocacy for research-based programs and for higher standards now carried on by the AFT's educational issues department. The NEA itself will issue a report next fall on the efficacy of selected reform programs and networks, the NEA president said. "That is the direction the association is moving in."

Burying the Hatchet

Among the AFT leadership, several local presidents said last week, there has been little opposition to merging. Ms. Feldman called the vice presidents to Washington the weekend of Jan. 24-25 to brief them personally on the conceptual agreement.

"The skepticism is more from the staff at a lower level," said Ted Kirsch, the president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. "In the battles over the years for representation, some of the feelings have been very intense on both sides."

Opinion appears to be more divided in the NEA, where some members still shun the term "union" and would reject AFL-CIO affiliation, which for some teachers is associated with corruption and a lack of democratic processes.

Robert J. Gilchrist, the president of the Iowa State Education Association, said teachers in his state want to remain independent of the AFL-CIO and stay focused solely on education.

Some Iowa teachers have even asked him if their state could opt out of any national affiliation. "Our primary concern is that the national affiliate be an independent organization," Mr. Gilchrist said.

In New Mexico, the two state unions have been working together for at least five years, said Mary Lou Cameron, the president of NEA-New Mexico. They are collaborating now to try to remove the 1999 "sunset" provision in the state's collective bargaining law.

Relations between the two unions also are strong in California, Florida, Minnesota, Montana, and Pennsylvania. In contrast, the New Jersey affiliate of the NEA has long been a vocal opponent of merger.

A no-raid agreement signed two years ago in Illinois has helped members there bury the hatchet, said Tom Reece, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union. "We've wasted money and effort for years and years and created enemies in small towns with each other," Mr. Reece said. "We've kind of done a disservice to education."

Many members will be awaiting details as the two negotiating teams hash out the myriad issues involved in a merger.

"I would guess that many people would support the principles and await the particulars," said John Ryor, the executive director of the Florida Teaching Profession-NEA, who served as president of the national association from 1975 to 1979. "I do believe that external attacks on public education, and unionism in general, has created a clearer picture of what's at stake in the long haul."

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