Minn. Unions Eagerly Await Merger Voting

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St. Paul, Minn.

Until 1992, Laurie Vinyon refused to have anything to do with either of the teachers' unions that constantly warred for membership in her district. She was turned off by the negative fliers in her mailbox and the frosty relations between teachers who belonged to the rival organizations.

"I thought, 'What a waste of time and energy as professionals,'" recalled Ms. Vinyon, an English and communications teacher at Valley Middle School in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district.

But her attitude changed dramatically after the local affiliates of the Minnesota Education Association and the Minnesota Federation of Teachers finally called a truce. The once-bitter enemies voted in September 1992 to create Dakota County United Educators, the first merged teachers' union affiliate in the state.

Persuaded that teacher unionism had turned a corner, Ms. Vinyon quickly "hopped on board." Now, at 35, she's one of the younger members of the MEA's board of directors. In that role, she's been involved in helping to write a new constitution and bylaws that would create a single union for Minnesota teachers.

Union leaders here are anxiously awaiting approval this summer from their national organizations to forge ahead with their plans for Education Minnesota, which would become the nation's only merged state teachers' union. The appetite for merger is strong: Since the NEA and AFT locals merged in Ms. Vinyon's district, 11 other Minnesota affiliates have followed suit.

State leaders have been waiting patiently for their national organizations to devise a framework that would allow them to merge. In January, their hopes came true when the presidents of the NEA and AFT announced they had reached an agreement. Delegates to both organization's meetings will be asked in July to approve "principles of unity" for a single national teachers' union. ("Unions Agree on Blueprint for Merging," Feb. 4, 1998.)

"We are presuming that it will be approved" and smooth the way for Education Minnesota's Sept. 1 debut, said Larry E. Wicks, the MEA's executive director. "There isn't a Plan B."

Union leaders' hopes for Education Minnesota mirror the philosophical argument for the proposed unification of the two national unions: to create a stronger voice for teachers and public education. But at the state and local levels, merger also has practical, tangible benefits that already are apparent here, they say.

"People call us the Pollyannas from the prairie," laughed Sandra E. Peterson, the president of the Minnesota Federation of Teachers, "but we are really hard-nosed pragmatists."

Living Together

Today, Ms. Peterson and Judy E. Schaubach, the president of the Minnesota Education Association, can walk just a few steps down the hall of the MEA's offices here to coordinate their schedules.

The building, two short blocks from the state Capitol, also houses the unions' combined legal, communications, government-relations, and instructional-issues staff members. The field staffs for both organizations work out of the MFT building. All employees have been guaranteed jobs in Education Minnesota.

The federation, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, represents 26,000 members in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth, and districts primarily surrounding the metro Twin Cities area. The MEA, an affiliate of the National Education Association, has 52,000 members around the state.

Over the years, as they dueled for membership, the two state unions tended to look at issues through "the lens of competition," Ms. Peterson said.

Worrying about how issues would affect the union's position relative to its rival "colored virtually everything we did," Ms. Schaubach agreed.

Both organizations perpetuated what their leaders now call myths about each other: The MEA was bureaucratic, and the MFT was less democratic and controlled by the AFL-CIO.

Meanwhile, the political climate in Minnesota continued to shift beneath teachers' feet. In the mid-1980s, Democratic Gov. Rudy Perpich fell out with the teachers' unions over their opposition to his statewide open-enrollment plan for public schools.

Now, the unions are at odds with Gov. Arne Carlson, a Republican who has championed private school vouchers and successfully pushed through legislation last year to create tax credits and deductions for education-related expenses. Minnesota's charter school law, which has allowed the for-profit Edison Project to run a school in Duluth, also has the unions on the alert.

"These continual threats are overwhelming issues to both organizations," Ms. Peterson said.

Stronger Local Voice

As the Dakota County United Educators was being born in 1992, the state organizations laid down their arms with a no-raid agreement that was a precursor to the formal merger agreement. Members of both unions last year approved a constitution and bylaws for Education Minnesota.

One hallmark of the new organization would be a stronger voice for local presidents, who number more than 480. Education Minnesota would have a 24-member "council of local presidents" that would meet regularly to advise state leaders on local issues.

The council is intended to help Education Minnesota meet the needs of its members, who are faced with implementing the state's complex new requirements for high school graduation. Local presidents have identified the graduation standards as their No. 1 issue. But they are also concerned with peer review, which Minneapolis has undertaken to enable teachers to evaluate and advise one another; leadership development within the union; the growing shortage of substitutes; and the rising cost of health insurance, among other issues.

"It's taken a lot of determination and trust and putting aside egos to envision how this short-term conflict will be worth it in the long term to create a single organization that can better serve members," Ms. Shaubach said. "We have bigger battles to fight."

The two organizations produced a joint legislative agenda this year, calling for state lawmakers to reduce class sizes, underwrite full-day kindergarten for disadvantaged children, and invest in professional development geared to the graduation standards. While the legislature set aside just $1.5 million for kindergarten, the lawmakers allocated $70 million to help teachers learn about and implement the graduation standards.

The two state presidents say that a merged teachers' union should play a major role in helping teachers link up and figure out how best to spend the professional-development money.

The peaceful climate among teachers has allowed local leaders to take risks in collective bargaining. The state presidents point to the Robbinsdale district, where an MFT affiliate is working on a new salary plan for teachers. It will allow them to earn up to $15,000 a year in extra pay for scoring well on a portfolio showing their skills and accomplishments.

Combined Strengths

One of the hardest-fought battlegrounds in Minnesota was the 26,800-student Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district, where representation elections between the two unions often were decided by a handful of votes. One disputed election, to determine which union would bargain for the district's 1,900 teachers, even made its way to the state supreme court.

Before the merger, the unions' rivalry was so intense that the out-of-power faction would lie in wait for its competitor to make a mistake, recalled Chuck Aase, a 7th grade American-studies teacher at Valley Middle School. "You would be hoping in some ways that they wouldn't do a good job negotiating," he said, "so you would have issues to flip the local over."

In the six years since merger, the local union has negotiated a provision to allow teachers at the top of the salary schedule to earn extra money for professional activities, such as serving on curriculum committees. Teachers in each school decide which activities will qualify.

While not universally popular, the measure is at least debated on its own merits, said Jim Smola, the president of the merged local. Before the merger, he said, it never would have been tried.

"We still have problems," he admitted, "yet issues now stand on their own legs and don't become political."

Merger has yielded other benefits: Members' involvement in their union has increased dramatically. Teachers like Ms. Vinyon, who were repelled by negativism, are now pitching in enthusiastically, unafraid of being tagged as a member of a group that could fall from favor.

Mr. Smola estimates that 800 teachers are taking part in union-sponsored activities, ranging from collecting for a local food panty to lobbying the legislature.

The local is affiliated with the AFL-CIO, as is the American Federation of Teachers, but not the National Education Association.

The local president is convinced that a merged organization can best serve the needs of younger teachers, who repeatedly ask for workshops to improve their teaching. "The federation has been strong on bargaining, and the MEA on training and resources," he said. "What younger teachers want, a new organization will be able to provide."

The View From Outside

Ms. Vinyon would like to see Education Minnesota, above all, devote its energies to helping its members learn about best practices and develop their professional knowledge.

She's also outspoken in her hopes that the new organization won't be bureaucratic and that it can reduce costs. Minnesota teachers now pay about $500 a year in combined local, state, and national dues. Federation members' dues went up last fall under the new fee structure for Education Minnesota to cover the state-level cost of staff and legal expenses that previously were borne by local affiliates.

Outside of union circles, Minnesotans say the effect of a merged state teachers' organization remains to be seen.

Richard J. Anderson, the executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association, expressed hope that the merged union will focus its efforts on teaching and learning.

"If their focus is going to be backwards, in terms of following a previous pattern of adversarial bargaining," he cautioned, "then the merger is going to be detrimental."

The biggest job in public education today, argued Tom Nelson, the superintendent of the Buffalo, Minn., schools, is building relationships with the public.

"It's in their hands," Mr. Nelson said of the state presidents. "If they use it well, we'll all make some headway. If they don't, it will set us back even further."

Web Only

Web Resources
  • Read a statement made Feb. 11, 1998, by Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association, at the National Press Club on the first anniversary of the launch of his "new unionism" initiative.
  • Read a January 1998, joint statement, "Teacher Unions Report Substantial Progress Toward Merger," from either the AFT or the NEA.
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